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Students and professors debate ethics of Chick-fil-A's donation decision

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UNC students stand in line to dine in the only onsite Chick-Fil-A located at the bottom of Lenoir. On Monday, Nov. 18, 2019, the fast-food chain announced it would stop donating to the Salvation Army and the Fellowship of Christian Athletes due to criticism they've received for opposing LBGTQ+ rights. 

When you’re eating in a rush on-campus, picking up a quick bite to eat from Chick-fil-A in the Bottom of Lenoir is easy and favored by many UNC students. But for some, the fast-food chain's long history of donations to anti-LGBTQ groups and evangelical organizations is enough to deter them from the chain's waffle fries and chicken sandwiches. 

After facing backlash from LGBTQ+ activists, Chick-fil-A announced on Monday, Nov. 18, that the company would cease donations to two faith-based organizations, the Salvation Army and the Fellowship of Christian Athletes. The two groups have been criticized for opposing LBGTQ+ rights, including same-sex marriage.

Chick-fil-A has faced criticism for the conservative views of its leadership since 2012, after CEO Dan Cathy made comments opposing same-sex marriage. 

Professor Jeffrey Edwards uses the controversy surrounding the restaurant as an example while teaching his ethical leadership class in the Kenan-Flagler Business School.

“I use Chick-fil-A as an example for us to talk about, in a class where one of four issues that we talk about has to do with gay marriage and tolerance of LGBTQ people in the workplace,” Edwards said. 

In the most recent decision made by the company, Edwards said it can be looked at from three ethical points of view: outcomes, nature of the actions and virtues. 

“One of them has to do with the outcomes — it’s called the utilitarian approach, which essentially is who is benefiting and who is being harmed by decisions like this, it could be employees or customers,” Edwards said. 

The second point of view examines the nature of the actions themselves, Edwards said, regardless of the effects that they produce. The third point of view is virtue ethics, which takes into account what a person considers their own personal values.

"So, Cathy would be the person in question here," Edwards said. "So you think about ethically, withdrawing reward from these charitable organizations, are there winners and losers?"

Professor Sreedhari Desai said that despite the good done by Chick-fil-A in the past, the company's desire to incorporate religious beliefs regarding marriage structures into its charitable decision-making is problematic at best. 

But the company still maintains a large share of the fast-food market, she said.

“The various boycotts of Chick-fil-A due to its owners’ homophobic stance have not deterred its growth as a fast-food giant (it's slated to #3, following in the heels of McDonalds & Starbucks)," Desai said in an email.

But she said that doesn't mean the company's philanthropic decisions have no impact on business.

“However, the negative PR it has suffered can’t be good for business," Desai said in the email. "And especially as future consumers in the form of Gen Z – those aged 14 to 22 in 2019—approach adulthood with a liberal set of attitudes and an openness to emerging social trends, Chick-fil-A would be served well to rethink its stance on whether gay marriages deserve to be on equal footing with traditional marriages."

Chick-fil-A has made a step in the right direction, but action could have been taken sooner, said Graeme Strickland, a senior business student and co-president of Pride@KFBS,  Kenan Flagler's Undergraduate Business LGBTQ+ organization.

“I think that it should have happened a long time ago, especially back in 2010 when a lot of pressure was on Chick-fil-A," Strickland said. "So now that we’re nine years out, we’re now hearing this, the effect is kind of minimal."

Although the most recent announcement is a step in the right direction, Strickland said, he doesn't see Chick-fil-A offering its full support to the LGBTQ+ community anytime soon.

“Chick-fil-A is not likely to go out of its way to make a statement of support of LGBTQ individuals so I can’t really say that I have much expectation for the company,” Strickland said.

Strickland said supporting the LGBTQ+ community not only works toward social justice, but also can be a good business model in the long run. 

For a company that makes billions, donations in the hundred-thousands to anti-LGBTQ groups can feel more like a political statement, Edwards said. 

“I think it boils down to as a company, does this say much about Chick-fil-A?" Edwards said. "...And I think the symbolic aspect of it really says more about Cathy than it does Chick-fil-A."

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