Resting Thruway Chick-fil-A dispute stops dividing along partisan lines

ALBANY – First up, the July 7 announcement: Certain rest areas on the New York State Thruway will soon be home to Chick-fil-A, the famous fast food restaurant.

The rest could have been easily predicted.

Democratic state lawmakers backed down, angered that a chain of chickens with a history of donating to anti-LGBT causes be allowed to move into staging areas owned by a state authority.

Then came the pushback, Republican lawmakers issued their own letter, promising to back Chick-fil-A and welcome them to the Thruway.

Even an out-of-state federal lawmaker got involved, with Senator Lindsey Graham, R-South Carolina, tweeting Tuesday that it would “set a horrible precedent” if state officials blocked Chick-fil-A rest areas for “exercising their First Amendment rights.”

The back-and-forth of Chick-fil-A’s presence on the Thruway comes as a $ 300 million project to rebuild and renovate rest areas is about to begin. The project is funded by Applegreen, an Irish convenience store chain that takes over the lease for the rest areas.

The controversy is similar to similar disagreements over Chick-fil-A at airports in Buffalo and San Antonio, where the chains’ efforts to settle were rejected amid protests from lawyers and officials.

And it comes as a similar controversy unfolds at Notre Dame University, which prompted Graham to say he would “go to war” for the Chicken Chain.

“I hope we don’t have to, but I’m going to wage war for the principles that Chick fil-A stands for,” Graham tweeted Wednesday. “Great food. Great service. Great values.

The History of Chick-fil-A’s Controversial Donations

A Chick-fil-A restaurant in Chambersburg, Pennsylvania.

Chick-fil-A has long drawn the ire of LGBTQ advocates who challenge the company’s history of giving to groups and organizations that have championed anti-LGBTQ positions.

In 2012, Chick-fil-A CEO Dan Cathy said the country “invites judgment from God” by embracing same-sex marriage.

“I pray the mercy of God on our generation which has such a proud and arrogant attitude to think that we have the audacity to define what marriage is,” Cathy said then on “The Ken Coleman Show”, according to the christian post.

In 2019, Chick-fil-A has announced it will refocus its charitable giving focus on groups dedicated to education, homelessness and hunger, removing contributions to groups like the Salvation Army and the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, to which she had previously donated.

And in a statement last week, the company said it “has no political or social agenda, and we welcome everyone to our restaurants.”

That does little to appease critics who say a company with a history of donating to organizations with anti-LGBTQ positions should not be allowed to operate in the public domain.

In a letter to Thruway Authority executive director Matthew Driscoll on Friday, Assembly Member Harry Bronson – a Rochester Democrat who is openly gay – urged them to change course.

Bronson noted that New York was seen as a leader in LGBTQ rights, becoming the first major state to vote to legalize same-sex marriage in 2011.

“This decision by the Thruway Authority (authorizing Chick-fil-A) seems to send a message to LGBTQ + individuals and families that they do not share the same commitment to their civil rights as New York State,” said writes Bronson in a letter also signed by Assembly members Deborah Glick and Daniel O’Donnell, Manhattan Democrats who are also openly gay.

Bronson’s letter was preceded by a similar message to Driscoll from MP Linda Rosenthal, D-Manhattan.

On Tuesday, 14 Assembly Republicans sent their own letter, noting that Chick-fil-A is popular among his fans and is well regarded in the fast food industry.

“While some of our colleagues in the state legislature have attempted to reformulate your decision in an ideological context to advance their own political agendas, rest assured that the decision to add Chick-fil-A has broad support from the public and sparked excitement among our two constituents and Thruway travelers, ”reads the letter, which was hosted by MP Colin Schmitt, R-New Windsor, Orange County.

Where will the Chick-fil-A restaurants go?

At this point, it’s unclear exactly which rest areas will house Chick-fil-A.

That decision will be up to Empire State Thruway Partners, which is funding the overhaul of the rest areas and choosing which restaurants to partner with inside the facilities. Originally a consortium of investors, Empire State Thruway Partners has since been acquired by Applegreen.

In exchange for $ 300 million overhaul plus $ 150 million in rent and maintenance, Empire State Thruway Partners will retain most of the revenue generated by the rest areas.

The company did not directly address the Chick-fil-A controversy, but instead issued a statement saying it was excited to invest in rest areas and welcome a “wide array of top food brands. range, children’s play areas and electric vehicle charging points “.

The Thruway Authority, meanwhile, stressed that the decision rested with Empire State Thruway Partners. Any entering restaurant will need to follow state law regarding discrimination and inclusiveness, according to authority spokesperson Jonathan Dougherty.

“There is no state taxpayer money or toll fund to support the redevelopment of the 27 Thruway service areas,” he said.

Chick-fil-A, meanwhile, maintains a strict company policy of remaining closed on Sundays, the traditional day of rest and worship among Christians.

This will be the case at all Thruway locations, although Sunday is a popular day for highway travel.

Dougherty said the Sunday shutdown was a Chick-fil-A requirement that Empire State Thruway Partners had factored into their plan.

“Not all service areas will include Chick-fil-A. Each service area will offer a variety of dining options,” he said.

What will happen next?

The fact that the rest area renovations were undergoing a private renovation was initially enough to give Buffalo Senator Sean Ryan, a Democrat, a break.

Ryan had criticized efforts by Buffalo Niagara International Airport to contract Chick-fil-A to open a restaurant at the taxpayer-backed establishment in 2019. The plans were quickly scuttled amid criticism.

But despite initial comments suggesting he didn’t have a problem with the channel coming to the privately funded rest areas, a spokesperson for Ryan said that was no longer the case: he stands by alongside his fellow Democrats in opposing the chain to rest areas because the property is on land owned by the Thruway Authority.

Chick-fil-A’s plans for the Thruway have also drawn criticism from LGBTQ organizations across the state, including the Hudson Valley LGBTQ Community Center and Cortland LGBTQ Center.

“This is concerning,” said Peter Criswell, executive director of the Hudson Valley Center. “The company is used to donating to causes that go against the state’s values ​​of inclusion, and we hope there will be a second look.”

After:New York’s Thruway Squares will soon undergo a major overhaul. See what they will look like.

After:Chick-fil-A, Shake Shack and more: Here’s what’s happening at NY Thruway rest areas

Jon Campbell is the New York State team editor for the USA TODAY Network. He can be contacted at [email protected] or on Twitter at @JonCampbellGAN.

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