The grand opening of an Orange County location of Southern chicken-sandwich chain Chick-fil-A on Thursday ran head on into America's culture wars.
The new Laguna Hills franchise was greeted at its 6:30 a.m. opening by protesters critical of recent comments from Chick-fil-A's president that showcased the company's ongoing support for anti-gay causes.
"Our hope is that we will bring more awareness to consumers who may be coming to Chick-fil-A who don't know that they have donated millions of dollars to anti-LGBT groups and organizations," said Laura Kanter, director of youth services at the Orange County Gay and Lesbian Services Center.
On Wednesday evening, fans of the Southern fast-food chain's chicken sandwich who had planned to camp overnight were told to disperse in light of the protests.
Chick-fil-A consultants in Laguna Hills sought early Thursday morning to focus on the chain's customers and popular products.
"We're not ignoring, we're giving folks ample opportunity to voice their opinion," said Skip MacHarg, business consultant to the chain. "Chick-fil-A is going to remain out of the limelight as far as as discussing this issue altogether."
Another company consultant, Ron Pentz, urged protesters to give the independently operated Laguna Hills franchise a chance.
"We just want to get this restaurant open and show our love (of) the community today," Pentz said.
The Southern California protest came a few days before "Chick-fil-A Appreciation Day," which was launched by former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee in defense of the company's conservative social stances. Huckabee set Aug. 1 as the day for his followers to visit the chain and tell cashiers that they support the company's values.
The chain, which runs some 1,600 restaurants in a $4 billion annual business, says it operates on "biblical principles." The original location in Atlanta opened in 1967.
Through its WinShape Foundation, the company has donated millions of dollars to organizations that have fought against gay marriage and support conversion or reparative therapy, which seeks to turn gay people straight, according to an investigation from gay-rights organization Equality Matters.
The latest chain of protests appears to originate from reaction to a July 2 story about company President Dan Cathy that was published on the website of the Biblical Recorder.
"We are very much supportive of the family – the biblical definition of the family unit. We are a family-owned business, a family-led business, and we are married to our first wives," Cathy said in the story.
“We intend to stay the course. We know that it might not be popular with everyone, but thank the Lord, we live in a country where we can share our values and operate on biblical principles,” Cathy added.
Last week, in widely publicized letter, Boston Mayor Thomas Menino urged the chain to stay out of his city because of its stance. On Wednesday, a Chicago city leader said he planned to block the company from building in the Midwestern city until Chick-fil-A produces an antidiscrimination policy.
Chick-fil-A said that it strives to "treat every person with honor, dignity and respect — regardless of their belief, race, creed, sexual orientation or gender," the Boston Herald reported, according to the Associated Press.
LGBT activists have long known of the chain's "traditional values" stance, but Kanter, from the Orange County gay center, said Chick-fil-A has been a focus recently both because of Cathy's comments and because "public sentiment has changed" in relation to gay-rights issues.
"People have become more conscious and more aware and less tolerant of companies that promote hateful rhetoric against LGBT people," Kanter said.