The Problem With Chick-fil-A Offsets

My friend Ted Frank has a new project: selling "Chicken Offsets" to people who enjoy Chick-fil-A but don't want to indirectly support anti-gay causes. Most of the purchase price of these offsets will be donated to pro-gay organizations such as the It Gets Better Project. As Frank notes:

Chick-fil-A sells $4,100,000,000 of chicken a year and donates about 0.04% of that to Christian organizations that are only anti-gay in a collateral sense. Buying a chicken offset does far more for gay rights than boycotting the chain because someone asked a business executive so religiously Christian that he insists that the stores be closed on Sunday what he thought about gay marriage and people are pretending to be surprised by the answer.

I don't think Frank actually expects to sell a lot of offsets. (He even refers to his operation as a "joke website" on his own FAQ.) But he does have a point to make: Chick-fil-A's donations have a very small effect on the gay rights landscape, and consumers are better off taking pro-gay actions on their own than boycotting Chick-fil-A.

This is clever, but it misses the purpose of the boycott. Trying to starve anti-gay causes of funds by not buying chicken sandwiches would indeed be a silly strategy, but that's not what the boycotters are up to.

The point of the boycott is expressive. It is meant to show that opposing equal rights for gays is unacceptable and that people and companies who do so will be subject to social sanction. It is part of a broader effort to move opposition to gay marriage outside the bounds of polite discourse. Continuing to shop at Chick-fil-A while buying offsets does not serve that goal.

Of course, social conservatives bristle at the idea that their views are impolite or can be received as such. I've had several people take issue with my describing Chick-fil-A CEO Dan Cathy as a "bully" in today's Boston Globe and with my description of opposition to gay marriage as "anti-gay."

If opposing gay marriage isn't anti-gay, I have trouble seeing what is. Gay marriage opponents want government policy that explicitly prefers straight people over gay people and that offers legal benefits to people in opposite-sex relationships that are denied to those in same-sex relationships. This is anti-gay in the same, straightforward manner that high cigarette taxes are anti-smoking.

I think what gay marriage opponents tend to mean when they deny being anti-gay is that they have sound reasons for being anti-gay and that their views are not borne out of hate or animus. And surely that is sometimes true, though prejudice against gays is a key reason that social conservatives have much more success in defending anti-gay policies than policies seeking to impose traditional sexual morality on straight people.

Even when gay marriage opponents aren't motivated by animus, they are still making gays play by rules that no one else has to play by.  Like many gay marriage opponents, Chick-fil-A CEO Dan Cathy says he favors the biblical definition of marriage. But the government does not otherwise limit the issuance of marriage licenses to those that would be sanctioned by churches.

Gay marriage opponents raise concerns about how fit same-sex couples are to marry or raise children. But other demographic groups are not expected to demonstrate that they are, in the aggregate, at least as good as average at marrying or parenting.

Straight people can get married (and remarried, and remarried) and reproduce as they like, without regard for how that affects the public at large or even their own families. Only gays are expected to demonstrate that our relationships are in the public interest before we access the benefits of marriage.

Gay people are fed up with that -- and we should be. And, increasingly, it's becoming the popular sentiment in major northern cities that subjecting gay people to special burdens isn't just bad policy but also offensive behavior. And one thing you do with people who offend you is you don't eat at their restaurants.

Tom Menino and other elected officials erred by using the state as a tool to express that disapproval. Individual citizens who want to support gay marriage should do so, by boycotting -- offsets won't cut it.

(Josh Barro is lead writer for the Ticker. E-mail him and follow him on Twitter.)

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.