July 30, 2012
The Politics of Chick Fil-A Bans
Matt has the legality of the various proposed Chick Fil-A bans covered. As numerous commentators have pointed out, prohibiting Chick Fil-A stores based on the opinions of the store's owner is flagrantly unconstitutional. While most commentators have focused on the First Amendment, I think Chik Fil-A has an equally strong legal argument under the Fourteenth Amendment given the Supreme Court's decision in Village of Willowbrook v. Olech, 528 U.S. 562 (2000): it is a violation of the equal protection clause to discriminate against a particular landowner due to "animus" against the landowner.
To me, the more interesting question is why city officials would propose something that is obviously unconstitutional (leaving aside the possibility that these officials are dumb, which is of course a legitimate possibility). In fact, if city officials really wanted to prevent Chick Fil-A from locating in their towns, the very worst thing they could have done is announce publicly their discriminatory animus toward the franchise. As land use folks have seen time and again, it's really easy for communities to exclude land uses they don't like (e.g., affordable housing) by citing vague concerns about traffic, noise, congestion, and so on. They rarely make the mistake of saying "we just don't want poor people living here." Now, because of what the various officials in Chicago, San Francisco, Boston, etc have said, it will only be harder to exclude Chick Fil-A even if the city has legitimate concerns about traffic, noise, etc because the inference of discriminatory animus will be so hard to shake. So why, to repeat my question, are city officials doing this? There are two possible answers, as I see it:
1) City officials see themselves as having nearly absolute power over zoning. Such a sense of entitlement may stem from a variety of sources: 1) city officials' authority is rarely challenged by repeat-player developers who would rather not anger city officials they may have to deal with again and again; 2) the news media rarely takes up zoning issues as causes celebre, and 3) courts are largely deferential toward local zoning practices. This sense of entitlement may be especially acute in Chicago, where the informal practice of "aldermanic privilege" essentially grants the alderman in each ward the unfettered right to dole out land use permissions.
This is the less likely of two alternatives, however.
2) City officials knew all along that what they were proposing was unconstitutional, and never had any serious intention of banning Chick Fil-A. The real reason for their strident statements: signalling that they are gay-friendly communities. Under the public choice model of local governance, cities are conceptualized as "firms" who compete for affluent residents and tax revenues. Richard Florida has provocatively argued that one of the greatest potential resources for cities are gay residents, who tend to have high disposable incomes and have had a history of revitalizing depressed neighborhoods in many urban areas. Thus, it makes sense that these cities would want to signal their friendliness toward gays, and it especially makes sense that once one city so signalled, others did the same to ensure that they're not seen as any less gay-friendly. In this sense, the proposed Chick Fil-A bans are very similar to then-mayor Gavin Newsom performing gay marriages in San Francisco in 2004 in flagrant violation of California law.
One footnote here: If I'm right, why did New York mayor Mike Bloomberg so forcefully diverge from these other big-city officials and declare that cities have no right to ban Chick Fil-A? Perhaps Bloomberg felt he already had sufficient credibility with gays that this was an unnecessary stunt. In addition, cities aren't just competing for gays but for business. Bloomberg's corporate instincts probably led him to conclude that potential investors in NY real estate might be deterred if the city started engaging in viewpoint-discrimination among different businesses. This shows the delicate tap-dance big city officials have to constantly engage in: give sufficient tribute to the liberal constituencies while not alienating big business.
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