Chick-fil-A's CEO Now Wiser on Marriage Equality Debate

Dan Cathy says his opinions on marriage haven't changed, he's just learned to keep them to himself.

BY Sunnivie Brydum

March 17 2014 5:12 PM ET

Nearly two years after Chick-fil-A's then-COO Dan Cathy's comments opposing same-sex marriage — and his company's $5 million in donations over two years to antigay groups — put the fast-food chain at the center of the nationwide debate over marriage equality, Cathy says he'll be steering clear of social issues in his new role as president and CEO of the Atlanta-based chain. 

In a wide-ranging interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Cathy said he regrets making the unabashedly Christian company a symbolic ground zero in the so-called culture war surrounding marriage equality — and he'll leave future battles to politicians and pundits

"I think that’s a political debate that’s going to rage on,” Cathy told the Journal-Constitution in an article published Friday. "And the wiser thing for us to do is to stay focused on customer service."

That doesn't mean he didn't learn anything from the 2012 firestorm, though. 

"Every leader goes through different phases of maturity, growth and development and it helps by [recognizing] the mistakes that you make,” Cathy said. "And you learn from those mistakes. If not, you’re just a fool. I’m thankful that I lived through it and I learned a lot from it."

In 2012, Cathy drew the ire of LGBT activists, allies, and consumers when he told the Baptist Press that he operated the chicken chain "on biblical principles" and readily admitted he was "guilty as charged" in opposing same-sex marriage on religious grounds. What's more, it was ultimately revealed that Chick-fil-A, through its charitable organization the WinShape Foundation, donated roughly $5 million over two years to antigay groups, including the Marriage and Family Foundation — which is run from the same address as Chick-fil-A's Atlanta headquarters and was founded by a member of the Cathy family — the National Christian Foundation, and the Fellowship of Christian Athletes. Since then, progressive website ThinkProgress reports, the foundations associated with the fast-food company have "dramatically" cut the support provided to antigay groups, granting just $25,000 to the Fellowship of Christian Athletes last year. 

After Cathy's comments and the company's questionable donation practices came to light, Chick-fil-A restaurants around the nation were the targets of "Kiss-In" protests by LGBT activists, and some franchises were vandalized. Meanwhile, conservative icons like failed vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin and former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee proudly supported the chicken chain, with the latter launching a countrywide Chick-fil-A Appreciation Day, which reportedly broke sales records for the company. 

Even after Cathy's comments and the company's antigay giving history came to light, he took to Twitter to bemoan last summer's landmark Supreme Court rulings that struck down a section of the so-called Defense of Marriage Act and finally killed California's same-sex marriage prohibition, Proposition 8. In a quickly removed tweet June 26, Cathy lamented the "sad day for our nation," contending that the "founding fathers would be ashamed of our gen[eration] to abandon wisdom of the ages re: cornerstone of strong societies."

Ultimately, being the focus of all that attention on both sides of the issue was stressful, Cathy told the Journal-Constitution. What's more, Cathy said he's gotten wise to the appropriate place of a fast-food chain in the cultural debate. 

"Consumers want to do business with brands that they can interface with, that they can relate with," Cathy said. "And it’s probably very wise from our standpoint to make sure that we present our brand in a compelling way that the consumer can relate to."

Despite the backlash, Cathy — who the Journal-Constitution reports is a self-proclaimed evangelical — says his personal views on marriage equality haven't changed. 

"I think the time of truths and principles are captured and codified in God’s word and I’m just personally committed to that," he told the Journal-Constitution. "I know others feel very different from that and I respect their opinion and I hope that they would be respectful of mine."

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