Religious liberty and a good chicken sandwich

Does San Antonio City Council regret vote denying both to future airport travelers and vendors?

At least one San Antonio City Council member has publicly apologized for his harsh criticism of Chick-fil-A and his vote to remove the restaurant from the city airport concessionaire contract. But Mayor Ron Nirenberg and city council continue to face allegations that their vote to ban the restaurant based on its perceived “anti-LGBT behavior” violated state and federal laws and even its own nondiscrimination law.

But behind the scenes meetings between the mayor, City Council members, Christian business owners and faith leaders could redeem the situation.

Steve Branson, pastor of Village Parkway Baptist Church, left one such meeting encouraged.

“This will lead to more open discussion with City Council,” he told the TEXAN. “That has not happened – ever.”

On March 28 council members Manny Pelaez, Shirley Gonzales, and Ana Sandoval, who voted for the ban, and Greg Brockhouse, who voted against it, listened as about 60 faith leaders and business owners told them how the vote “created a climate of discrimination.”

“It was such a horrific precedent,” Mike Sharrow, CEO of C12, a Christian CEO peer advisor network, told the TEXAN. “The implication of what the city did was alarming.”

Over the years, city officials in Chicago, Boston and New York have threatened to ban the company from their cities but Jeremy Dys, an attorney with First Liberty, said he doesn’t recall any that followed through on the threat like San Antonio has.

On March an LGBT advocacy publication erroneously accused Chick-fil-A of donating millions of dollars to so-called “anti-LGBT” organizations– a claim Chick-fil-A denounced as “inaccurate and misleading” in an email to the TEXAN.

But without consulting with company leaders or city administrators who approved the concessionaire contract, Councilman Roberto Trevino cited the publication’s allegations and called for the restaurant’s banishment during the March 21 City Council meeting.

“San Antonio is a city full of compassion, and we do not have room in our public facilities for a business with a legacy of anti-LGBTQ behavior,” Trevino said in a statement posted on the city’s website. “Everyone has a place here, and everyone should feel welcome when they walk through our airport.”

Councilman Pelaez agreed and called Chick-fil-A a “symbol of hate.” Pelaez, like his fellow council members who voted to reject the company, cited no evidence to substantiate their claims of discrimination according to Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton.

During the March 28 meeting with pastors and business owners, Pelaez apologized for his comments and told the gathering that he regretted his vote to remove Chick-fil-A from the concessionaire contract. He admitted that his source of information was “inaccurate.”

None of the other seven vendors in the contract were scrutinized for their stand on LGBT issues before the City Council voted 6-4 to remove Chick-fil-A from the contract. The contract winner, Paradies Lagadère, was told to find a replacement.

Within hours the city drew national criticism. Within a week, attorneys threated legal action.

In a Tweet U.S. Senator Ted Cruz, R-Texas, called the decision “ridiculous. And not Texas.” And U.S. Representative Chip Roy, R-Austin said in a letter to City Council that targeting corporations for “carrying out their deeply-held religious beliefs in accord with our laws…is hardly making San Antonio a ‘champion of equality and inclusion.’”

Also playing off Pelaez’s and Trevino’s calls for “inclusiveness” Councilman and mayoral candidate Greg Brockhouse sent a letter to Chick-fil-A CEO Dan Cathy apologizing for the council’s actions.

“In spite of the appearance of this decision, San Antonio is a welcoming city that values diversity, faith and inclusivity,” he said.

On March 28, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton and lawyers with First Liberty asked the U.S. Department of Transportation to determine if San Antonio’s actions violated federal law. If they did the city could lose some federal funding.

Paxton also opened an investigation into whether the city violated Texas law.

“The Constitution’s protection of religious liberty is somehow even better than Chick-fil-A’s chicken. Unfortunately, I have serious concerns that both are under assault at the San Antonio airport,” Paxton said in a letter to San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg.

U.S. Civil Rights Commissioner Peter Kirsanow pulled no punches in his criticism of the city’s “bigoted virtue-signaling.”

Kirsanow, along with Paxton and Sasser, noted the U.S. Supreme Court has repeatedly affirmed that First Amendment speech protections apply to individuals and corporations, including government contractors.

“’Speech’ includes monetary donations to organizations that government officials may not like,” Kirsanow said in a letter to Nirenberg, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, and San Antonio City Council.

He also addressed the problem that Branson and Sharrow believe is at the root of the city’s discriminatory actions – the city’s SOGI nondiscrimination ordinance.

In 2013, the same time San Antonio began drafting its SOGI law, the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights held hearings on the potential conflicts such laws create – bakers pressed to make cakes for gay weddings and nuns required to provide birth control to employees. But the idea of a city banning a fast-food chain from a city contract “would have been too far-fetched to consider.”

Consider it done.

In 2014 San Antonio passed its SOGI law to protect the city’s LGBT residents from discrimination in employment, housing, and public accommodation. Five years later no one has filed a complaint, Sharrow said.

Instead, the law has been used to intimidate businesses and even churches into silencing their views on a number of controversial issues said Branson. The city council’s actions “essentially weaponized” the ordinance Sharrow said.

And representatives of the LGBT community who attended the March 28 meeting also condemned the council’s vote, according to Sharrow and Branson. One woman told the council members that threats against people of faith threatens everyone.

Pelaez, Gonzales and Sandoval expressed concern over their vote once confronted with the implications it had on the broader San Antonio community.

Trevino, who called for the ban, did not respond to questions from the TEXAN.

While investigators search for violations of state and federal law, pastors and business leaders have already scheduled more meetings with elected officials hoping to convince them to undo the discriminatory act perpetuated against San Antonio’s faith community. By calling Chick-fil-A a “symbol of hate” for not affirming same-sex marriage they likewise labeled every Christian who shares that conviction.

Council members disagreed but Sharrow pushed back and introduced them to the Reyes family, owners of the restaurant where they were meeting. Like Chick-fil-A owner Dan Cathy, the Reyes family contributes to their church which recognizes marriage only as a union between a man and a woman.

Kirsanow also noted the problem.

“I respectfully suggest that by that standard, City Council’s got a lot more banning to do,” he said.

Or, they could hear and respond to the pleas of their citizens and followed the lead of Pelaez.

TEXAN Correspondent
Bonnie Pritchett
Most Read

What does a special-needs family experience when they visit your church?

Editor’s note: The Southern Baptists of Texas Convention has designated July 14 as Disability Ministry Sunday. We walked up to the registration area for the children’s classes one Sunday at the church we were visiting in …

Stay informed on the news that matters most.

Stay connected to quality news affecting the lives of southern baptists in Texas and worldwide. Get Texan news delivered straight to your home and digital device.