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Steve Lopez: Defending free speech, not bigotry, at Chick-fil-A

A group of gay-rights and same-sex marriage supporters protest in front of Chick-fil-A restaurant in Hollywood on Aug. 3.

The story of Chick-fil-A, the national chain whose boss raised a storm with his declaration against gay marriage, reminded me of a similar flare-up a few years ago at El Coyote restaurant on Beverly Boulevard in West Los Angeles.

Steve LopezLate in 2008, El Coyote was the scene of protests that brought out police in riot gear. The trouble began after it was revealed that Marjorie Christoffersen, whose family owns the restaurant, had donated $100 to the Yes on Proposition 8 campaign through her Mormon church. Proposition 8 banned gay marriage and had just been passed by California voters, and many of El Coyote’s loyal gay patrons, among others, felt betrayed by Christoffersen, who was the face of the restaurant.

I took a lot of heat at the time for defending Christoffersen in a column, with readers thinking I was too sympathetic even though I made clear I didn't share her beliefs in the least. I support gay marriage, but also the right of people to freely express their views, no matter how odious I find them.

I feel the same way about Chick-fil-A's Dan Cathy. He can broadcast his views, no matter how bigoted they seem to me. And people can protest, as they have, or they can line up for bags of Chick-fil-A grease in a show of support (either for free speech or for bans on gay marriage).

But why do I have more trouble with Cathy than I did with Christoffersen?

For one thing, I think I've become more intolerant of intolerance in the last few years.

For another thing, in the case of El Coyote, where many of the employees are gay, Christoffersen didn’t go public with her opposition to gay marriage. Someone saw that she’d made the small donation and outed her.

In the case of Cathy, he proudly declared in an interview that he was “guilty as charged” in regard to his, and his company's, firm opposition to gay marriage, and news accounts put the company’s donations to anti-gay organizations in the low millions of dollars.

Some might argue that, morally, the distinctions are minor, or perhaps even that Cathy's blunt comments are more honest than was Christoffersen's stealth support of Proposition 8.

But in a phone interview this week, Christoffersen told me her small donation was a personal and individual choice, not a company position.

“I did not represent my business,” she said. “Nothing has changed. Everybody is welcome here" at El Coyote, "as has always been true. And everyone is entitled to their opinion, as has always been true.”

As for Chick-fil-A’s Cathy, she said, “I would never comment on that. I think he has the right to do what he wants to do.”

Back in 2008, gay rights activist Fred Karger told me he thought it would have been more effective to target the Mormon church and other big backers of Proposition 8 rather than go after a small operation like El Coyote. He told me this week that he still feels that way, but on the other hand, he used to go to El Coyote once a month or so but hasn't been there since the flap over Proposition 8.

That's understandable, and I can't say I have any burning desire to visit El Coyote or Chick-fil-A. Though I'll always defend free speech, nothing ruins my appetite like the expression of bigotry masked as God's word.

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-- Steve Lopez

Photo: A group of gay-rights and same-sex marriage supporters protest in front of a Chick-fil-A restaurant in Hollywood on Aug. 3. Credit: Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times

 
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