July 28, 2012
Chick-fil-A, Gay Marriage, Constitutional Law, and Land Use
Even the culture wars often end up in a land use controversy. Over the past few days, public officials in Boston and Chicago made statements that Chick-fil-A restaurants would not be welcome in their jurisdictions because of the anti-gay-marriage opinions expressed by the company's CEO. According to the Wall Street Journal's Jack Nicas, one Chicago alderman went so far as to state that he would personally deny a permit solely on that basis. From First Amendment Trumps Critics of Chick-fil-A:
Chicago Alderman Proco Moreno wrote in the Chicago Tribune Thursday, "Because of [Mr. Cathy's] ignorance, I will deny Chick-fil-A a permit to open a restaurant in my ward."
I don't agree with the CEO's statements either, but it's pretty clear that, under the Constitution, his opinions can't legitimately be the basis for granting or denying land use permission. Cleveland State law prof Alan Weinstein put it best:
Alan Weinstein, a professor of law at Cleveland State University who specializes on the intersection of land-use law and constitutional issues, said he has seen officials try to use zoning laws to block adult stores or religious institutions, but never a commercial enterprise because of political views. He said that beyond the First Amendment, "in the land-use sphere, the government has no legitimate interest" in the political views of an applicant.
That last observation is key. Most of the commentary on this issue has revolved around the CEO's First Amendment rights. And it's true that free speech is one of the only areas where the courts will apply strict scrutiny to overturn government land use decisions. But as Prof. Weinstein notes, this question isn't even really about regulating actual speech on land; it's about the rational basis for land use regulation itself under the police powers.
From a pragmatic perspective, it's pretty easy to imagine a counterfactual scenario where an unpopular political opinion on the other side of the spectrum could likewise result in negative land use decisions under such a precedent. It appears that this constitutional reality is setting in, and the public officials are backtracking. Here's a video interview with the WSJ reporter:
I was one of the other "land use experts" who talked to the reporter, but Prof. Weinstein definitely said it best.
So to sum up: Many of us disagree with the Chick-fil-A CEO's opinions, but everyone seems to agree that it would be unconsitituional to prohibit the company's land use on that basis.
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