LUMBERTON — Chick-fil-A of Lumberton will not open until Aug. 23, but there was a small crowd gathered there Wednesday for “Chick-fil-A Appreciation Day” — a show of support for the corporation’s ownership that has come under fire for what it calls a pro-family position, but what critics say is a bigoted message.
Spearheaded by Wendy Pridgen, wife of Republican state Rep. G.L. Pridgen, the event saw up to 25 people at a time standing outside of the restaurant on Jackson Court, which is nearing completion.
She said the company is being “unfairly demonized.”
“We’re just showing our support even though our Lumberton Chick-fil-A’s not open yet,” she said. “We thought we would stand here and let them know we’re glad they’re here.”
She said she originally planned make her stand at the Chick-fil-A in Fayetteville.
“G.L’s secretary said, ‘Well, you can always just stand in the parking lot in Lumberton, since it’s not finished.’ So, that’s what we’ve decided to do,” she said, adding that they had permission from restaurant operator Mark Morse.
Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, a Baptist minister and Fox News contributor, declared Wednesday “Chick-fil-A Appreciation Day” and exhorted customers to support the business and its president and Chief Operating Officer Dan Cathy. Cathy, son of Chick-fil-A founder Truett Cathy, ignited a firestorm last month when he said during an interview with The Baptist Press that the company is “guilty as charged” of supporting “the biblical definition of the family unit.”
“We are very much supportive of the family — the biblical definition of the family unit,” Cathy said. “We are a family-owned business, a family-led business, and we are married to our first wives. We give God thanks for that.”
Gay rights groups and others answered with calls for boycotts.
On Wednesday at the Lumberton location, people walked up, stood and talked with the demonstrators during the day. Some drivers yelled from their cars or blew their horns in support. Others threw a wave or a thumbs-up from their vehicles.
“Yay! We’re driving 40 miles to another Chick-fil-A,” said Karin Pfuntner of Gainesville, Fla. She and her family were en route to Richmond, Va., and planned to stop at the Chick-fil-A in Fayetteville on the way.
The support was not unanimous. One man yelled from his car: “Shogun has chicken sandwiches too, you haters and bigots.”
G.L. Pridgen said the demonstration was about tolerance.
“The people that holler ‘intolerance’ need to be tolerant,” he said. “I don’t necessarily always agree with other people, and other people don’t always agree with me, but I’m very tolerant of their opinion and they should be tolerant of mine. I feel like he (Cathy) just spoke his opinion … and to get lambasted the way he did, I thought, was wrong.”
Shannon Strickland, of Lumberton, said she heard about the event at her church and came to support the restaurant because it is bringing jobs to the area.
“They offer scholarships to students, and I have a student at Lumberton High, and I just think I have the same beliefs that they do as far as Christian standpoint,” she said. “… I think everybody has the right to believe what they want to believe, and it should be that way because we are all in America. I agree with him (Cathy).”
Kathy Edge, wife of Robeson County Commissioner David Edge, said she came to support Cathy “for standing behind Christian beliefs and showing his support for it.”
“All of us should have freedom to speak the way we feel,” she said. “They’ve got their rights, we’ve got our rights, and we shouldn’t condemn each other for it. I don’t necessarily believe in some of their things or the way they live, but I’m not the one that has to answer for it. I just have to answer for what I do.”
Hila Wilkerson, of Lumberton, said she’s always been a fan of the restaurant and its food, and now loves it “because of its beliefs.”
“I appreciate any kind of corporation that is a Christian corporation, because I’m very much a Christian and I like to see others be the same way,” she said. “… I believe in traditional marriage, I’m against gay marriage. I’m for the Bible, and I think Chick-fil-A is too. It’s just an excellent way to go.”
A spokeswoman for the Rev. Billy Graham says the 93-year-old evangelist ate a Chick-fil-A lunch, including a chicken sandwich and waffle fries, at his North Carolina home.
The controversy has sparked interest — and commotion — nationwide. In Chick-fil-A restaurants across the country, lines wound out the doors and traffic backed up down streets with drivers waiting to “eat more chikin.” Some Democratic officials, including Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Boston Mayor Thomas Menino, have spoken against Cathy’s views, essentially telling the restaurant that it is not welcome in their cities.
Same-sex marriage proponents have organized a counter-protest, and are asking people to donate the approximate cost of a Chick-fil-A meal — about $6.50 — to gay and lesbian rights groups, according to the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation. The alliance is also promoting a “Same-Sex Kiss Day” to be held at Chick-fil-A restaurants around the country on Friday, during which participants will share a same-sex smooch and post pictures of it on the Internet.
The displays in North Carolina on Wednesday came on the heels of the passage of Amendment One, which defined marriage solely as a union between a man and a woman and was approved during a referendum in May by a vote of 61 percent to 39 percent. Robeson County voters supported the amendment 86 percent to 14 percent.
“Most people agree that a marriage is between a man and a woman,” he said. “If people want to live a different lifestyle, it’s not up to me to tell you you’re doing wrong. It’s kind of like the Bible; I don’t have any rocks to throw because that’s up to you. How you want to live is strictly up to you.”
Pridgen said companies shouldn’t mix business with politics, but he doesn’t believe Chick-fil-A has done that.
“They just asked his personal opinion and he gave it, and that’s how he feels,” he said. “The company itself does not have a policy supporting or against same-sex marriage. They hire the people that come in. They don’t ask their race, their sexual orientation or anything like that. They treat them all the same, and that’s the way it should be.”
Morse, the owner of the Lumberton restaurant, could not be reached for comment. The company released the following statement last month: “The Chick-fil-A culture and service tradition in our restaurants is to treat every person with honor, dignity and respect — regardless of their belief, race, creed, sexual orientation or gender. We will continue this tradition in the over 1,600 restaurants run by independent owner/operators. Going forward, our intent is to leave the policy debate over same-sex marriage to the government and political arena.”