Chick-fil-A counters criticism from gay rights groups: "We're not anti-anybody"

The president of Chick-fil-A insists the company is not anti-gay, defending the restaurant chain against withering criticism from gay rights groups in recent days.

A variety of complaints against the Atlanta-based company coalesced this month. There was the decision by a Chick-fil-A operator in Pennsylvania to supply food to an event sponsored by the Pennsylvania Family Institute, which has worked to defeat gay marriage initiatives and has become a lightning rod for gay rights groups. There was a blogger's contention that Chick-fil-A's WinShape Foundation does not admit gay couples to marriage counseling.

For some gay activists, these are just more reasons to avoid the company's chicken sandwiches and conservative ways.

"Chick-fil-A can sponsor who they want. It's a free country," said Will Kohler, administrator of a gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender blog called "But they shouldn't get upset when they get found out supporting issues and ideas that discriminate against a section of their customers."

In an exclusive interview Sunday with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, president Dan Cathy defended Chick-fil-A. He called reports in the blogosphere "folklore" and misleading.

"We're not anti-anybody," said Cathy, son of the company's founder, Truett Cathy. "Our mission is to create raving fans."

Earlier this month, Cathy appeared on a Facebook video to argue that the Chick-fil-A sandwiches and brownies to be provided at a marriage-training event sponsored by the Pennsylvania Family Institute are not an endorsement of the group's politics.

On Saturday, Cathy issued a statement saying that "While my family and I believe in the Biblical definition of marriage, we love and respect anyone who disagrees." Cathy said Chick-fil-A would not champion any political agendas on marriage and family. That is not a change from previous practice, Cathy said -- "just a confirmation."

"We've opted not to get involved in the political debate," he told the AJC. "It's never been our agenda."

But Chick-fil-A finds itself squarely in the political debate. A New York Times story published Sunday noted the conservative religion that is built into Chick-fil-A's corporate ethos have run it against the gay rights movement. Students at some universities have tried to get the chain removed from campuses.

Recently, administrators at the Indiana University South Bend suspended weekly Wednesday sales of Chick-fil-A items at two main dining areas, according to the South Bend Tribune. The administration wanted to review complaints raised by a student group and members of the executive committee of the Academic Senate.

Cathy says Chick-fil-A operates its business on Biblical principles but "is not a Christian company." It's a nuanced distinction, and many customers may miss it.

Hymns play in trees above the walkways surrounding the company's headquarters, and contemporary Christian songs play over the sound systems in many of its restaurants. Thanks partly to being closed on Sundays, Chick-fil-A has become one of the country's highest-profile businesses with Christian overtones.

But Cathy said reports that the company requires potential franchisees to discuss their church involvement are incorrect. "We do not require this in our franchisee selection process nor do we require a pledge to follow Christian values for the college scholarships we provide," he said in the statement on Saturday.

The company's WinShape Foundation, which has trained hundreds of couples, does not bar gay couples from its marriage retreats or training, Cathy said. But he added that the curriculum is designed for heterosexual couples.

When asked if he would prefer the company was in the news for other things -- the upcoming Daddy-Daughter Date Night, for example -- Cathy said he welcomed the discussion of marriage.

"It's been a really great thing for us," he said of the recent controversy. "We intend to stay the course. It's served us well. We don't mind being in the news for this."