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Listening to Randi Rhodes yesterday, I heard something that struck me. So I did a little research and found this, which I thought worth sharing with you all.

An article in the small business section of the Houston Chronicle reports on how one can win approval to become a franchise operator for Chick-fil-A.

First you fill out an application, and the company does some checking into your financial background, etc. Step 2 in winning approval mentions that the company wants franchisees to be "active" in their communities, and notes specifically that they "prefer" people who participate in "community, religious and professional organizations." Now it's getting interesting, but even that's pretty mild stuff compared to what's coming, especially after step 3, which merely emphasizes that operating the franchise should be the applicant's full-time job.

Step 4

Play an active role in your church. Chick-fil-A's owners are devout Christians and expect all of their operators to share Christian values. Operators do not need to be Christian, but must be willing to close the restaurant on Sundays, espouse Christian values and be willing to participate in group prayers during training and management meetings.

That's where I took a deep breath. Yes, it says that operators don't have to be Christian, but there's the part about values and prayers. We'll discuss that further in a bit.

Step 5 asks applicants to be prepared for a long vetting process. Then Step 6 informs applicants that they will have to clearly declare their marital status, and notes that the chairman, S. Truett Cathy, "prefers" that all franchisees be married. The article goes on to explain that:

One-third of all Chick-fil-A operators have attended Christian relationship-building retreats at the urging of the company. Cathy notes that he would probably terminate the contract of an operator who had done something sinful or harmful to his family.
Now, I have to assume that there's nothing illegal about any of this, because that would have been in the news when I searched for it. Obviously, the law allows for companies to be more discriminating (pun intended) in selecting franchise operators -- who are essentially business partners of the owners -- than in hiring employees, where this kind of open religious preference for Christians would be patently illegal (I would assume, though I'm not a lawyer).

Whether it's legal or illegal, I still find these company policies troubling, although it is a complex issue. Let's say you and I owned a restaurant chain and we decided to put out a statement saying that, in addition to our commitment to non-discrimination and equal treatment, we preferred franchise operators who shared our commitment to progressive values, etc. Would you be comfortable with that? Would it feel right morally to you?

One issue certainly is that political beliefs are not the same as religious beliefs. Although we are talking about business partners, not employees, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act clearly proscribes discrimination based on religion, but does not mention political beliefs, and, on a related note, federal law also prohibits discrimination based on marital status.

But Chick-fil-A went beyond even just preferring those who espouse "Christian values." There's the part about having to participate in prayers. Would you and I, in our restaurant chain, mandate that our franchise operators participate in some kind of group gathering where we collectively prayed or otherwise preached about our ideals? This, to me, is a step beyond, and maybe a step too far.

This isn't a post about my unadulterated outrage. There are some serious questions here, namely about the right of individuals to form business associations (again, distinct from hiring decisions, which are covered by law) with people who share their beliefs.

Does Chick-fil-A have the same right, morally speaking, to do this as we might, in a related example, to boycott businesses because of their beliefs (separate from a boycott over actions, such as discrimination, that materially hurt people and so are in a different category)? Is the demand that franchise operators participate in group prayers the deal breaker?

I'm thinking that the answer to that last question is yes. I'm not a Christian, but I know enough about Christian values to know that Mr. Cathy doesn't get to define them. I believe Christian values to be defined by compassion as seen in many of the actual writings of the New Testament (some of which are quoted here).

Therefore, I could feel comfortable espousing Christian values as I understand them, and as understood by millions of Christians. But I would have to choose to either participate in the official group prayers that would violate my own beliefs on religious questions, or to be dishonest and fake my way through them. To me, putting potential franchise operators in that position crosses a moral line, even though it doesn't seem to have crossed a legal one.

I believe in a society that embraces religious (and other forms of) pluralism, but is unified around democratic values that we must all share (one of which, of course, is respect for religious freedom). The Chick-fil-A vision as described in the selection process for franchisees is disrespectful of religious pluralism both in terms of belief and practice. That's my take on it. But it's clearly a complex issue.

What do you think?

PS-I'm also very excited to announce that my book Obama's America: A Transformative Vision of Our National Identity has now been published by Potomac Books. For anyone interested, I wrote about the book a bit in this recent post.

6:46 AM PT: The reporter gave the following as sources (links are in the original piece):

References

    Chick-fil-A: Franchise Opportunities

    Forbes: The Cult of Chick-fil-A; Emily Schmall; 2007

Resources

    Chick-fil-A Careers: Franchise Application

Originally posted to Ian Reifowitz on Fri Aug 03, 2012 at 06:18 AM PDT.

Also republished by Invisible People and Barriers and Bridges.

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