San Antonio Agrees to Offer Airport Lease to Chick-fil-A

Members of the San Antonio City Council said last year that Chick-fil-A should be kept out of an airport contract because its charitable foundation has donated to groups that have taken anti-LGBTQ stances.

A Chick-fil-A restaurant in Toronto. (Photo via Sikander Iqbal/Wikipedia Commons)

SAN ANTONIO (CN) — San Antonio has agreed to offer commercial space at the city’s international airport to Chick-fil-A, the fast-food restaurant that was controversially left out of a vendor agreement last year in a move Republican state officials called religious discrimination.

“This is a win for religious liberty in Texas and I strongly commend the FAA [Federal Aviation Administration] and the city of San Antonio for reaching this resolution,” Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton said in a statement Monday. “To exclude a respected vendor based on religious beliefs is the opposite of tolerance and is inconsistent with the Constitution, Texas law, and Texas values.”

Paxton has said in press releases and on-air Fox News interviews that San Antonio was “ordered” to offer Chick-fil-A vendors space — a claim echoed by several news outlets — but city attorney Andy Segovia said this is a false spin on the dispute’s resolution.

“The FAA has not ordered the city of San Antonio to have Chick-fil-A at its airport,” Segovia said in a statement. “The city itself offered to resolve the FAA investigation informally. The city maintains that at no point did it discriminate against Chick-fil-A. Any placement of Chick-fil-A at the San Antonio Airport is ultimately contingent on Chick-fil-A’s continued interest and approval by the city council.”

Paxton’s office was not involved in the conversations between the city and the FAA regarding the vendor contract, a spokesperson told Courthouse News.

“Unfortunately, and ironically, AG Paxton’s false declaration of victory significantly jeopardizes the potential for a mutually beneficial and amicable resolution,” Segovia said in the statement.

In March 2019, the San Antonio City Council approved a contract with concessionaire Paradies Lagardère to bring new vendors to the city’s international airport, but the councilmembers asked Chick-fil-A to be replaced with a different vendor.

At the City Council meeting, at least two representatives said Chick-fil-A should be kept out of the contract because the Georgia-based chain’s charitable foundation previously donated to groups that have taken anti-LGBTQ stances, such as the Salvation Army, Paul Anderson Youth Home and Fellowship of Christian Athletes.

In 2012, Chick-fil-A’s then-CEO Dan Cathy spoke out against gay marriage on a Christian radio show.

“I think we are inviting God’s judgment on our nation when we shake our fist at him and say, ‘We know better than you as to what constitutes a marriage,’” Cathy said.

During last year’s meeting, San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg said Chick-fil-A was an unsuitable vendor because, in keeping with its devoutly Southern Baptist founder’s religious beliefs, the restaurant is closed on all Sundays — a choice that would ultimately reduce airport revenue, the mayor warned.

Former councilman Greg Brockhouse, who unsuccessfully sought to unseat Nirenberg as mayor that summer, was joined by two others in fighting to keep Chick-fil-A on board. In the end, the city rejected the restaurant on a 6-4 vote, with one representative abstaining.

The decision roiled conservatives such as Texas’ junior U.S. Senator Ted Cruz, who accused San Antonio of retaliating against the religious beliefs of Chick-fil-A’s leadership.

“That’s ridiculous,” Cruz tweeted. “And not Texas.”

Last summer, the Texas Legislature passed a bill supporters called the “Save Chick-fil-A” law. A group of conservative activists sued San Antonio in state court under this law in September 2019, claiming they would have frequented the airport’s Chick-fil-A if the city hadn’t “banned” it. Last month, Texas’ Fourth Court of Appeals found that the activists’ claims were barred by governmental immunity.

The situation also drew the ire of Paxton, the state’s chief legal officer.

“The Constitution’s protection of religious liberty is somehow even better than Chick-fil-A’s chicken,” the Republican attorney general wrote to Nirenberg in a letter dated March 28, 2019. “Unfortunately, I have serious concerns that both are under assault at the San Antonio airport.”

In response to a complaint filed by Paxton, the FAA opened an investigation into the city’s allegedly discriminatory behavior.

FAA grant recipients are not allowed to exclude “individuals on the basis of creed, including religious creed, from participation in activities carried out with federal grant funding, including airport programs,” wrote Jonathan Klein, an FAA Office of Civil Rights official, in a letter to Paxton dated Sept. 10 and released by Paxton’s office Monday.

San Antonio received more than $8.2 million in financial assistance from the FAA in fiscal year 2019 to operate the San Antonio International Airport, Klein noted.

In the letter, Klein says the city reached an “informal resolution” with the FAA on July 24, agreeing to offer vendor space to Chick-fil-A within 45 days of the Sept. 10 letter.

The city promised that the offer would be “reasonable and consistent with customary business practices,” Klein said, further assuring Paxton that the FAA would ensure the city acted “in a timely, reasonable, and fair manner.”

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