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San Antonio claims immunity from suit over Chick-fil-A rejection

In a case challenging San Antonio’s rejection of an airport Chick-fil-A restaurant, the highest court in Texas heard debate over a controversial state law allowing citizens to sue government entities for taking action against religious groups.

AUSTIN, Texas (CN) — The Texas Supreme Court heard arguments Thursday in a case against the city of San Antonio over its decision to deny an application for a Chick-fil-A restaurant inside its international airport.

Five area residents who filed the lawsuit claim the city violated a new state law enacted after it blocked the fast-food chain – whose founder is an outspoken opponent of same-sex marriage – from opening a new location at the airport. The city, meanwhile, argues sovereign immunity shields it from being sued.   

The dispute began in March 2019 when the San Antonio City Council voted not to approve a proposed agreement to allow a subcontractor to operate a Chick-fil-A at the San Antonio International Airport. Two members of the City Council objected to the agreement, citing Chick-fil-A’s “legacy of anti-LGBTQ behavior.” 

The fast-food chain has donated to groups in the past that have voiced opposition to same-sex marriage and homosexuality, such as the Salvation Army and the Fellowship of Christian Athletes. Chick-fil-A CEO Dan Cathy has also reportedly given money to the National Christian Charitable Foundation, which has opposed the Equality Act, federal legislation to expand protections for LGBTQ people.

Conservative Christians argued the denial of the application was discriminatory against their beliefs.

The city’s rejection spurred Texas lawmakers to pass Senate Bill 1978, referred to informally as the "Save Chick-fil-A" bill, which bars governmental entities in the state from taking “adverse action” against people, organizations and businesses because of their religious beliefs. The law is enforced by private citizens through their ability to sue local governments that violate the law for declaratory and or injunctive relief.

When it comes to enforcement, SB 1978 is strikingly similar to a Texas law that took effect last month that banned abortions once a fetal heartbeat is detected, with no exceptions in cases of rape or incest. Enforcement of the six-week abortion ban is also placed in the hands of private citizens, allowing them to sue anyone who aids and abets in a procedure that violates the law. Many have argued that SB 1978 was a precursor to the abortion ban.

Four days after SB 1978 went into effect in September 2019, five San Antonio area residents sued the city for declaratory and injunctive relief to compel a Chick-fil-A restaurant to be built at the airport. They argue the city violated the law by excluding the fast-food chain on religious grounds.

In its motion to dismiss, San Antonio argued it is immune from such a suit because it is a governmental entity and the alleged violation occurred before SB 1978 became law and it is not retroactive.  

The trial court denied the city's motion, but an appeals court reversed and dismissed the case based on sovereign immunity.

On appeal to the Texas Supreme Court, the residents acknowledge that the law is not retroactive and the City Council’s vote happen before it was enacted, but they argue they are still entitled to relief because the city is continuing to violate the statute.

Attorney Jonathan Mitchell represents the residents and said that the appellate court's decision was wrong. “The city cannot assert a governmental immunity defense in a case where governmental immunity has been waived and abolished by statute,” he said.

Mitchell went on to say that his clients' only requirement to defeat the city's immunity claims is an allegation of a violation. He said the violation identified by the residents is not just the March 2019 City Council vote, but an ongoing violation for the city's continued exclusion of Chick-fil-A. 

“The city did not violate the statute when it [denied the application], because it enacted and adopted that amendment prior to Sept. 1, 2019. The violation of state law comes from the actions to implement [the decision] that occurred on or after September 2019,” the attorney said.

Representing San Antonio, Daniel McNeel Lane argued that the justices should affirm the appeals court's ruling because the city has not violated SB 1978. After all, last year the city offered the airport space it denied to Chick-fil-A in 2019. 

Justice Jimmy Blacklock asked Lane whether the residents’ argument that the city plans to continue to exclude Chick-fil-A was correct. 

“No it isn’t, as a matter of fact, it has been reported that the city of San Antonio went to Chick-fil-A and asked if they would be interested in having the slot that was denied," Lane replied.      

Chief Justice Nathan Hecht asked Lane about the crux of the dispute before the court. 

“The only dispute here is with respect to this filing, four days after the statute took effect. Can we be in court and argue about it?” asked Hecht. 

Lane said the city’s vote to deny Chick-fil-A the airport lease did not violate any law, and thus far the city has done nothing to warrant a waiver of immunity and allow the residents to sue.

It is unclear when the Texas Supreme Court will issue its ruling. If the five San Antonio residents prevail, the case will be sent back to the trial court to decide whether the city violated the law, and if so what relief the residents are entitled to.

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Categories / Appeals, Business, Government

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