After City Bans Airport Chick-fil-A, Texas AG Plans to Investigate

by | March 29, 2019 AT 7:04 AM

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton said Thursday he will investigate whether San Antonio violated the First Amendment when the City Council refused to allow Chick-fil-A take part in the airport concession contract.

Council members last week voted to exclude the restaurant from its list of vendors at San Antonio International Airport, after some said they couldn't support the company because of its anti-LGBT reputation.

The decision made national headlines, and conservatives, including Texas U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz and U.S. Rep. Chip Roy, R-Austin, lambasted the move.

"The Constitution's protection of religious liberty is somehow even better than Chick-fil-A's chicken," Paxton wrote in a letter to Mayor Ron Nirenberg and the rest of the City Council. "Unfortunately, I have serious concerns that both are under assault at the San Antonio airport."

Southern fast food giant Chick-fil-A is known for its owner's Christian conservative views and millions of dollars of support for groups opposed to gay marriage.

Paxton also on Thursday asked Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao to look into whether the city broke any federal law or regulation as a recipient of federal grant funds.

In a letter to Chao, Paxton said the city's action could violate the free exercise clause of the First Amendment. He added that it could also violate federal statutes and regulations that prohibit discrimination on the basis of creed.

"Ironically, the City's efforts to be 'inclusive' resulted in the exclusion of Chick-fil-A based on its religious beliefs," Paxton wrote to Chao.

Paxton has made defense of religious liberty one of the centerpieces of his tenure, repeatedly filing briefs and lawsuits in the name of the cause.

San Antonio City Attorney Andy Segovia's office said it was reviewing the attorney general's letter and wouldn't comment further on Thursday. Nirenberg said he would also withhold comment until the office has had time to analyze the letter.

Last week, a split City Council approved a contract with a Paradies Lagardère to bring eight new vendors to the airport, but the city ordered the company to find a replacement for Chick-fil-A. Councilman Roberto Treviño, who introduced the plan to remove the company, said he couldn't support its "legacy of anti-LGBTQ behavior." The council approved the plan 6-4 with the support of Nirenberg, and one member abstaining.

Treviño said Thursday that he stands by the motion. He said the city attorney helped craft the motion to ensure it was done legally.

"I'm confident that we have followed all our rights and laws as given to us as a City Council, and we did everything by the book," Treviño said.

Several council members expressed concerns about the decision's precedent, arguing it would force the city to ask every company it contracts with about its stance on LGBTQ issues. They included councilmen Greg Brockhouse, John Courage and Clayton Perry.

Brockhouse, who is also running for mayor, responded to the attorney general's announcement Thursday by calling on the council to reconsider the contract.

"This investigation is the result of the City Council's horrible decision to punish Chick-fil-A for their constitutionally protected rights to freedom of religion," Brockhouse said. "The City Council must immediately reconvene on this item ... to consider revoking this vote moving forward with Chick-fil-A as part of the contract."

In a mayoral debate with Brockhouse last week, Nirenberg cast the decision in mostly economic terms, noting the company's policy of closing on Sundays to honor the Sabbath.

"There are many people in the community that are uncomfortable with Chick-fil-A," Nirenberg said in the debate. "And I would ask you, have you ever tried to buy waffle fries on a Sunday? They're closed. Fifteen percent of sales generated in the airport come on a Sunday."

Brockhouse continued to criticize Nirenberg for the decision Thursday, saying it's "imperative Mayor Nirenberg speak on behalf of this city and do his job."

Separately on Thursday, Councilman Manny Pelaez, who supported the measure, apologized for comments in which he said Chick-fil-A supports conversion therapy, discriminates against LGBT customers and doesn't protect LGBT employees.

"Leaders should be expected to admit when they are wrong and own the mistakes they make," Pelaez wrote in a letter released Thursday morning, before the attorney general's announcement. "The information upon which I relied was out-of-date and inaccurate."

Pelaez said he does not envision the council reversing course and doesn't know whether that it is even possible. But he said he was inspired to apologize after researching the company's actions in response to outcry about its position on LGBT rights.

Chick-fil-A CEO Dan Cathy drew scrutiny in 2012 for comments he made against same-sex marriage. Cathy and the company said in a statement later that it would leave the marriage debate to government.

"In this instance, we have seen a company who was vilified in the media and subjected to significant boycotts, and in response to that vilification and those boycotts, they've changed their practices," Pelaez said. "Isn't that what we want from all companies, to respond to public outcry? They've done that."

Last week, liberal website ThinkProgress reported Chick-fil-A continued donating in 2017 to the Paul Anderson Youth Home, which the publication said teaches troubled youth that same-sex marriage is "rage against Jesus Christ and His values." Chick-fil-A told the publication that 2017 was the last year it donated to the organization.

Treviño said he stands by his position that Chick-fil-A is anti-LGBTQ.

"We obviously didn't do this to get national attention," Treviño said. "We did it because we felt it was the right thing to do."

(c)2019 the Houston Chronicle