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Chick-fil-A tries to put out political fire over anti-gay marriage stand

Lauren Steven Silich their Chick-fil-A LoyolWater Tower In-Line Restaurant. | Stanley Leary photo

Lauren and Steven Silich at their Chick-fil-A Loyola Water Tower In-Line Restaurant. | Stanley Leary photo

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Updated: August 28, 2012 6:17AM

Chick-fil-A tried Thursday to put out the political fire caused by the company president’s stand against gay marriage, even as Mayor Rahm Emanuel softened his opposition to the company’s planned Chicago expansion.

“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,” the company said in a statement released by its corporate headquarters in Atlanta in response to “the situation Chick-fil-A is currently dealing with.”

“We will continue this tradition in the over 1,600 restaurants run by independent owner/operators.”

Obviously referring to the political minefield that company president Dan Cathy stepped into, the statement said, “Going forward, our intent is to leave the policy debate over same-sex marriage to the government and political arena.”

The statement goes on to say that Chick-fil-A is a “family-owned and family-led” company founded by Truett Cathy that is managed on “biblically based principles” that include “closing on Sundays, operating debt-free and devoting a percentage of our profits back to our communities.”

The owner of Chicago’s only current Chick-fil-A outlet sounded a similar theme. Lauren Silich, owner and operator of the Chick-fil-A at 30 E. Chicago Ave., said she hires and serves gays “with honor, dignity and respect.” And she invited Emanuel to discuss the controversy created by Cathy’s stand against gay marriage.

“I would challenge anyone to see any discriminatory action by any Chick-fil-A anywhere, let alone in Chicago,” Silich said. “What was said are the personal beliefs of our CEO. But it has nothing to do with how we run our business in Chicago. It doesn’t translate into any discriminatory action.”

If Emanuel takes her up on the invitation, Silich said the mayor will see a restaurant that counts “a lot of gay employees” among its 97-member workforce and serves gay and lesbian customers with dignity and respect.

“I just want him to experience Chick-fil-A on the local level,” Silich said. “I just want him to have a 360-degree perspective on Chick-fil-A. I think he’s looking at it from a very national level. I would encourage him to look at it on the local level as well.”

Silich said her family has “deep Chicago roots” that includes city workers and that her husband, Steve, is a Chicago police officer.

“We’re real people,” she said. “We both grew up here. We’re dedicated to serving our community — and that means everyone, regardless of what their beliefs or lifestyle orientation is.”

Asked whether she believes it’s fair or legal for the mayor to block Chick-fil-A from expanding in Chicago, Silich said, “I don’t know what they can and cannot do. All I can do is challenge him to visit me on a local level. I’d love to sit down with him and talk through my business. He’d find we do a lot for the community. We’re very involved in our employees’ lives.”

She added, “I would just challenge people — before they go and make assumptions or boycott, talk to me. Experience our staff and our restaurant before making assumptions.”

Cathy said last week he is “guilty as charged” for supporting what he called the “biblical definition” of marriage as being between a man and a woman. His comments have infuriated gay rights activists across the nation, prompting their political allies to take a stand against the company.

On Wednesday, Emanuel and Ald. Joe Moreno (1st) joined the chorus. Moreno said he was determined to block Chick-fil-A from opening its first free-standing store in Logan Square. Emanuel sounded like he was ready to join him in blocking Chick-fil-A from expanding in Chicago.

“Chick-fil-A’s values are not Chicago values,” Emanuel said Wednesday. “They’re not respectful of our residents, our neighbors and our family members. And if you’re gonna be part of the Chicago community, you should reflect Chicago values.”

On Thursday, a spokesman for Emanuel softened those remarks.

“The mayor simply said that Chick-fil-a’s CEO does not share Chicago’s values,” the spokesman said. “He did not say that he would block or play any role in the company opening a new restaurant here.

“If they meet all the usual requirements, then they can open their restaurant, but he does not believe the CEO’s values are reflective of our city.”

Even as City Hall issued that statement, Lombard is ready to welcome the chain. Lombard Trustee Peter Breen says he wants to declare Aug. 1 “Chick-fil-A Appreciation Day” to open the west suburb’s arms to the fast-food chain that specializes in chicken sandwiches.

“Opposite the intolerant `values’ espoused by Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, our values in Lombard are pro-business, pro-jobs and pro-freedom,” Breen said. “We uphold the constitutional rights of free speech and freedom of religion of our residents and our business people alike,.

“Lombard is open for business. If Chicago is going to expel outstanding businesses like Chick-fil-A because of their leaders’ deeply-held beliefs on issues of public importance, we will invite those businesses to invest and bring their economic benefits to our community.”

Breen noted that both the U.S. Constitution and Illinois law prohibit government officials from discriminating “based on a person’s sincerely-held religious beliefs.”

He added, “We have a word for religious intolerance in this country: bigotry. And, in this case, it’s illegal.”

The Chick-fil-A controversy marks the second time in recent months that Emanuel has threatened to use his vast governmental powers to block political dissent. Earlier this year, the mayor cut off negotiations on a $300 million plan to renovate Wrigley Field in anger over the conservative politics of Joe Ricketts, the billionaire patriarch of the family that owns the Cubs. Emanuel was furious at Joe Ricketts for working with high-profile Republican strategists on a $10 million plan to resurrect the Jeremiah Wright controversy against President Barack Obama.

Cubs Chairman Tom Ricketts responded by insisting that neither he nor any member of the Ricketts family would condone such “racially insensitive” attack ads against Obama, saying, “That’s not who we are.”

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