The rallying cry “Save Chick-fil-A” was one of the most surprising stories to come out of the 2019 legislative session, and it began here in San Antonio.
When the City Council sat down to consider a new airport concession contract, it voted to exclude Chick-fil-A from the food court deal. That decision ignited a firestorm of claims alleging San Antonio City Council committed religious discrimination.
And now that firestorm is impacting the mayor’s race, federal funding and even state law.
Let’s go back to March 21.
San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg called a routine Thursday morning city council meeting to order.
One item includes an airport concession contract.
It’s a straight forward agreement that puts an emphasis on placing local restaurants in the airport. There’s also a plan to put a national brand — Chick-fil-A — in there.
But District 1 Councilman Roberto Trevino believes Chick-fil-A shouldn’t be included.
“The inclusion of Chick-Fil-A as a national brand tenant is something I cannot support,” he said.
His reasoning: Their donations to certain religious organizations that appear to discriminate against the LGBT+ community.
“The community has come together to voice its disapproval of this proposal because it includes a legacy of anti-LGBTQ behavior. The work our city has done to become a champion of equality of inclusion should not be undone so easily,” Trevino added.
Several council members speak out against and for the proposal.
District 6 Councilman Greg Brockhouse, who is challenging Nirenberg for mayor, said every other restaurant and business in the proposal would need to be asked about their LGBT+ views.
“Now that has become a change, not just a small change to the contract — follow me here colleagues — this is a material change in the city’s policy regarding contracting. Period,” Brockhouse said after a vote to postpone the decision failed.
The decision to remove Chick-fil-A from the proposal narrowly passed by, 6-4, with one council member abstaining. This is the exact moment San Antonio politics would be turned upside down.
Many high profile conservatives in the state called it an attack on religious liberty.
Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton launched an investigation.
“The city’s discriminatory decision is not only out of step with Texas values, but inconsistent with the Constitution and Texas law,” he wrote in a news release.
Paxton and a Dallas-based religious law firm also requested the U.S. Department of Transportation and Federal Aviation Administration to start their own investigations.
In April, there was a rally at the Texas Capitol dubbed “Save Chick-fil-A Day.”
It was organized by Texas Values, a conservative group that advocates for religious liberty and traditional marriage. The group often takes stands on local and statewide policy issues. Its president Jonathan Saenz praised legislative bills that would create restrictions on similar actions deemed attacks on religious beliefs.
“This House and this Senate has an opportunity to hold the San Antonio City Council accountable and make it clear that you should not discriminate based on religious beliefs,” Saenz said.
A day after this rally, Councilman Brockhouse used a procedural rule to call back the
Chick-fil-A decision for a revote.
“There has been council members who have made public commentary that there was a mistake made we needed to fix it, and they would vote otherwise if they had the chance. Well, here’s your chance,” Brockhouse said.
It failed on a 6-5 vote.
Chick-fil-A became a major topic of the mayoral race. It was discussed in nearly every debate.
In a debate on KLRN-TV two days before the May election, Mayor Nirenberg said it was a business decision since Chick-fil-A was closed on Sundays, one of the airport’s busiest days.
“It’s very important in our airport with very scare retail space that we have all that space operational so when visitors come you see a full array of options,” Nirenberg said.
To Brockhouse, it was about religious liberty: the same claim the state’s conservatives were making.
“The vote isn’t a chicken sandwich. It’s not a contract. It’s a faith-based piece of who we are, Ron, we have to believe in ourselves and own that,” Brockhouse said.
Brockhouse and Nirenberg are now in a mayoral runoff.
Meanwhile, the Texas legislature passed a religious liberty bill dubbed the “Save Chick-fil-A” bill. It was actually introduced two weeks before the council’s Chick-fil-A vote. It forbids governmental entities from punishing businesses or people for past donations to religious organizations. It was filed by Fort Worth Republican Matt Krause.
“We hear a lot of times in this chamber that, ‘Y’all means All,’ and I agree, and ‘all’ includes Chick-fil-A, it includes the Salvation Army, it includes the Fellowship of Christian Athletes and those who donate to them,” Krause said
Before it passed, State Rep. Rafael Anchia, a Democrat from Dallas, called it a new version of the 2017 bathroom bill.
“This is like a mini-bathroom bill that moving forward today, it gives space to people who want to discriminate based on orientation – identity,” Anchia said.
The Chick-fil-A decision sent shockwaves throughout the state. Last week, those waves surged back into the Alamo City when the FAA announced its own investigation into the city council vote.
The FAA said airport operators that receive federal grants cannot exclude people or companies from participating in airport activities on the basis of religious creed.
Coincidentally, the council was preparing to vote to accept $11.3 million in FAA grants Thursday. But the city attorney now says the inquiry has put that vote on hold.
“In light of the FAA’s notification of a pending investigation we felt it was prudent to postpone FAA funding-related items until we have a better understanding of the scope of the investigation,” City Attorney Andy Segovia said.
In response to all of this, a representative for Chick-fil-A said via email the restaurant is not involved in the investigations and has no social or political stance, adding, “We welcome and embrace all people, regardless of religion, race, gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation or gender identity.”