Last week, the student senate at Northeastern University, in Boston, voted to end negotiations to bring fast-food chain Chick-fil-A to campus after students protested over the company's affiliation with several Christian organizations the students say have an "anti-gay" agenda.
The Atlanta-based company, dogged for months by accusations of homophobia, insists it is "not anti-anybody" but instead simply wants to "graciously serve great food and have a positive influence on all who come in contact with Chick-fil-A."
But students from at least 10 campuses aren't buying it. Incensed over the company's Christian values, they opposed new franchises and lobbied for the removal of existing restaurants on campuses across the country. Although the furor has generated a lot of media attention, prompting the company's president to publicly defend its philanthropic affiliations, it's not likely to hurt Chick-fil-A's bottom line. With about 1,540 restaurants in 38 states and annual sales figures topping $3 billion, the company still has plenty of fans.
At Northeastern, the student body eagerly embraced Chick-fil-A's proposal to become a vendor in the student center, until a small group of students complained about the organizations to which the company contributes through its WinShape Foundation. Led by Senior Taylor Cotter, a member of the school's' student senate who spent almost a year opposing the company's interest in coming to campus, the students circulated a petition and gathered 300 signatures - about 1.5 percent of the student body. Despite the relatively small opposition, the school's student government quickly voted to end negotiations with the company.
School administrators supported the decision, saying the company's principles contradicted Northeastern's respect for diversity and support for the gay community: "We are proud of the decision that affirms our university's commitment to be an inclusive, diverse community that is respectful of all," college spokeswoman Renata Nyul said in a prepared statement.
Responding with their own written statement, company representatives said they were disappointed over the school's "hasty" decision: "We are not anti-anybody and Chick-fil-A [has] no agenda, policy or position against anyone as some reports continue to represent."
Company President Dan Cathy insists Chick-fil-A is not a Christian company, just one founded on biblical principles. But thanks in part to the company's affiliation with pro-family groups, its frequent presence at large religious rallies and the praise music reverberating from speakers in its restaurants, both fans and detractors often refer to it as one of the country's most overtly Christian businesses.
Through the WinShape Foundation, started by company founders Truett and Jeannette Cathy, Chick-fil-A donates to several Christian organizations, including The Marriage & Family Legacy Fund, The Fellowship of Christian Athletes and The National Christian Foundation. According to its statement, Chick-fil-A has given the groups $1,714,199. None of the organizations the company supports has an "anti-gay" agenda, although as Christian groups, they do uphold and support heterosexual marriage, Donald A. Perry, the company's vice president of corporate public relations, said in his statement.
"I want to assure you that the historical intent of our Foundation and corporate giving have been toward compassion, principally by serving youth and families," he said. The company gives millions of dollars every year toward education.
Chick-fil-A also has faced opposition at Duke University, Bowling Green University, Florida Gulf Coast University, Gainesville State College, Indiana University South Bend, Mississippi State University, Texas Tech University, the University of North Texas and New York University.
NYU freshman Hillary Dwarkoski, of Santa Monica, Calif., started an online petition asking school officials to close the existing Chick-fil-A location on campus. The petition now includes almost 11,000 signatures.
But not all students oppose the restaurant. In an opinion piece published in The BG News, the Bowling Green University newspaper, student Rob Furia chided school officials over their decision to remove Chick-fil-A from the list of possible replacements for Wendy's, which previously held a spot in the school's cafeteria: "It seems the decision was made based largely on faulty assumptions about Chick-fil-A's charitable work, meaning a hasty conclusion was drawn to avoid association with a company that was unfairly labeled."