Too “Sinful” to Fry Chicken? How Chick-fil-A Pushes Conservative Christianity On Its Workers
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This piece was originally published at Salon.
Wealth gives Chick-fil-A’s owners an outsize impact on our politics: As we’ve been reminded this week, the company channels millions of dollars into anti-gay organizations. But its impact on national policy is nothing compared to its influence over the lives of its employees. Comments from the company’s founder suggest that Chick-fil-A embraces its legal right to reward and punish employees’ private behavior. And a series of lawsuits allege that managers have wielded their authority over workers in ways that break the law: firing a Muslim for refusing to pray to Jesus; firing a manager so that she’d become a stay-at-home mom; and punishing workers for objecting to sexual harassment.
It’s now common knowledge that Chick-fil-A wears its brand of Christian conservatism on its sleeve. In a 2007 article, Forbes’ Emily Schmall described how that ethos infused the company’s employment policies. It meant extensive vetting of franchise operators, including interviewing their children and asking about their involvement in “community, civic, social, church and/or professional organizations.” “If a man can’t manage his own life, he can’t manage a business,” Chick-fil-A founder and chairman S. Truett Cathy told Schmall.
But operators weren’t the only ones being judged on their private lives: Schmall wrote that Cathy “says he would probably fire an employee or terminate an operator who ‘has been sinful or done something harmful to their family members.’”
That’s not illegal. Non-union, private sector workers like Chick-fil-A’s can legally be punished for almost anything they do, except where specifically protected by law. Brooklyn College political scientist Corey Robin notes that companies can and do fire workers for outside-work activities, from adultery to supporting the wrong political candidate to wearing an earring. Robin, the author of “Fear: The History of a Political Idea,” told Salon that employers act as “this invisible, private government that basically people live with every day of their life.”
Of course, federal law does bar discrimination based on categories like gender or religion (not sexual orientation). But while seeking employees without sin, Chick-fil-A has come under fire from workers who allege it broke the law. Forbes reported that U.S. District Court records showed at least a dozen employment discrimination lawsuits against Chick-fil-A between 1988 and 2007.
In 2002, Houston restaurant manager Aziz Latif allegedly was fired the day after he declined to take part in a prayer to Jesus during a training program. He sued Chick-fil-A for discrimination and reached a settlement whose terms have not been made public. Last year, Aziz’s attorney, Ajay Choudhary, told the Collegian that his client had been fired “for not conforming.” “Prayer,” he added, “should be, if anything, a private purpose, not a corporate purpose.” (Choudhary did not respond to a request for comment.)
Praying to Jesus isn’t the only activity Chick-fil-A employees claim has been illegally imposed on them. Brenda Honeycutt, who was hired by a Georgia Chick-fil-A in 1991 and promoted to general manager in 1997, charges that last year her franchise owner/operator began excluding her from management meetings and then fired her so that she would be home with her kids. In May, Honeycutt filed a Civil Rights Act lawsuit against the owner/operator and Chick-fil-A, Inc. The suit alleges that the owner told Honeycutt and three other witnesses “that he terminated the Plaintiff so she could be a stay at home mother.” In the period prior to firing her, it states that he “routinely made comments” to her “suggesting that as a mother she should stay home with her children.” It says she was replaced by a man.