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Texas high court sides with San Antonio in suit over Chick-fil-A rejection

Area residents who sued San Antonio for denying an application for a Chick-fil-A restaurant inside its airport failed to overcome the city’s governmental immunity defense but have been allowed to replead their case.

SAN ANTONIO (CN) — The Texas Supreme Court ruled in favor of San Antonio on Friday in a dispute over the City Council's decision to prohibit the opening of a Chick-fil-A restaurant inside the the city's international airport.

In March 2019, councilmembers voted not to approve a proposed agreement that would allow a subcontractor to operate a Chick-fil-A restaurant at the airport. Two members objected to the agreement, citing the fast-food chain’s “legacy of anti-LGBTQ behavior.”

Following this action, the Texas Legislature passed the so-called "Save Chick-fil-A" law. Also known as Senate Bill 1978, the law bars any governmental entity from taking adverse action against a person based on their association with a religious organization. It is enforced through private individuals' ability to sue local governments for declaratory or injunctive relief. 

The plaintiffs in this case are five San Antonio area residents who sued the city four days after SB 1978 went into effect in September 2019. They argued that the city violated the law by excluding Chick-fil-A on religious grounds and asked the court compel the city to allow the fast-food joint to open a restaurant inside the San Antonio International Airport.  

In its motion to dismiss, the city argued it is immune from the suit because the alleged violation occurred before the passage of SB 1978 and the statute is not retroactive. It further argued that the plaintiffs lack standing because being deprived of Chick-fil-A inside the airport does not constitute an injury. 

The trial court refused to toss the suit but an appeals court reversed and dismissed the case for lack of jurisdiction, prompting the plaintiffs to bring the case to the Texas Supreme Court.

In the court's 24-page ruling Friday, Justice Rebeca Huddle concluded that the residents' assertion that governmental immunity is waived once a violation of SB 1978 is alleged is not enough to overcome the city’s defense.

“Under our precedents applying similar immunity-waiver language in other statutes, such a bare assertion of a violation is insufficient,” wrote Huddle. “To invoke a waiver of immunity, petitioners must allege facts to support their claim that the City has violated [SB 1978].”

During oral arguments last October, the plaintiffs' attorney Jonathan Mitchell said that the violation of SB 1978 is not exclusive to the City Council's vote to ban the fast-food chain from the airport. Mitchell made the case that the violation is ongoing.

“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.   

But Huddle pointed out that the residents failed to present evidence that the city has violated the law since it has taken effect.  

“The City Council’s vote to...exclude Chick-fil-A from the airport cannot constitute an adverse action because all agree it occurred six months before [SB 1978] took effect. Because there is no factual allegation to support petitioners’ assertion that the city has taken actions that could constitute an adverse action after the statute’s effective date, the petition is insufficient to invoke [the law’s] waiver of immunity,” wrote Huddle. 

With the core issue settled, Huddle granted the plaintiffs the ability to try again, noting that “Texas courts allow parties to replead unless their pleadings demonstrate incurable defects.”

In repleading their case, the residents must provide facts supporting the cause of action outlined in SB 1978 and show that San Antonio has taken adverse action against them.

The court declined to address the issue of standing at this time.

Seven of the nine justices on the all-Republican high court signed on to the majority opinion. Two others filed a separate opinion concurring in the judgment.

Justice Jimmy Blacklock, joined in the concurring opinion by Justice John Devine, said he disagreed with the majority's opinion that the plaintiffs failed to state a claim under SB 1978 but agreed with the decision to remand the case for repleading.

"The petition credibly alleges that the exclusionary, discriminatory effects of the city council’s vote would continue to be felt after [SB 1978] went into effect,” Blacklock wrote.

With the dismissal reversed, the case returns to the trial court to give the residents a new shot at their claims.

SB 1978 has a strikingly similar framework to Senate Bill 8, also known as the Texas Heartbeat Act, which bans abortion in the state once fetal cardiac activity is detected. Both laws empower private citizens, not the government, with enforcement through civil lawsuits. In the case of SB 8, individuals may sue anyone who aids and abets in an abortion and may be awarded a minimum of $10,000 plus attorneys fees if successful. The “Save Chick-fil-A” law only allows for plaintiffs to secure declaratory or injunctive relief plus attorney fees. 

Chick-fil-A has been known for its Christian identity as a fast-food chain. It 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.  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.

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