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Wednesday, Nov 22, 2017
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Chick-fil-A draws a flock of supporters

TAMPA - The crowds didn't faze them. The rain didn't matter. The long wait for fast food didn't change their resolve. Chick-fil-A supporters in the Tampa area turned out to "Eat Mor Chikin" on Wednesday as the restaurant chain continues to be criticized for its top executive's comments about gay marriage. At some restaurant locations, police officers were on hand helping with traffic control. "Something like this would never have happened years ago," said Laurie Bentley, in line with her mother at the South Dale Mabry Highway store in Tampa. "You could have biblical values and not be criticized for it." Bentley made a point to have lunch at the fast-food outlet after former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, a Baptist minister, declared Wednesday national "Chick-fil-A Appreciation Day" as a way to support free speech and family values.
Chick-fil-A president Dan Cathy said last month that the company was "guilty as charged" for backing "the biblical definition of a family." That unleashed a torrent of criticism from gay rights groups and others, who have called for boycotts and efforts to block the chain from opening new stores. Rob Whitehurst, a production sound mixer from Tampa, had a personal reason to take part in the nationwide effort. He met Cathy and Cathy's wife a few years ago while working in Georgia on "Fireproof," a Christian movie. The couple he got to know was kind and "full of genuine love of Jesus," he said, and they are nothing like the hate mongers and bigots they've been portrayed to be by some media. "Slanderous lies and distortions," is how Whitehurst described the reaction to Cathy's comments. "They've based their business ethics on the Bible since the inception of the company in 1964. So what's the beef? Gays and straights alike have been eating the company's food for 48 years, and there has never been an issue." Virginia Reynolds came for breakfast at the Dale Mabry restaurant and was staying through lunch to show her support for the company. "Free speech is why I came," she said. "It's his right to support traditional marriage. And he's always had those views. It's not like this is something new." She said she also likes that Cathy makes it a company policy to close Chick-fil-A restaurants on Sundays to honor the Sabbath, giving employees time off to spend with their families. "It used to be like that in this country, with businesses shutting down on Sundays," she said. "He made that decision, people said it wouldn't work, and it has. This is a very successful company." Reynolds was most impressed by the calm and orderly crowd, which filled the restaurant and spilled out onto the outdoor entrance walkway. Police were brought in to direct traffic into the parking lot. "Any other place and you would have a lot of crabby, impatient people," she said. "Not here. They're glad to be part of this, even if it means waiting a little longer to get their food.  This shows he's got a lot of people who share his views." Big crowds also were reported at restaurants in other parts of the country, including the company's hometown of Atlanta. More than 500,000 visitors to Huckabee's Facebook page said they would participate. Among the high-profile supporters were former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, Florida Senate candidate Dave Weldon and the Rev. Billy Graham. "We are for the freedom of Americans to speak their mind and practice their faith," Huckabee posted on the page. Jonathan Torres, director of digital integration for the 2012 Republican National Convention, coming to Tampa later this month, saw some political value in the crowds. On Wednesday, he tweeted: 'Someone better get Mitt to a CFA before the end of the day. That's all I'm saying." Opponents of the company's stance are planning a "Kiss Mor Chiks" event for Friday, when they are encouraging people of the same sex to show up at Chick-fil-A restaurants and kiss each other. Shannon Bogle, carrying the chain's signature waffle fries and a spicy chicken sandwich, said he specifically chose Chick-fil-A for his lunch location because he believes in traditional marriage. And he intends to return Friday as well to give the chain his support. "There are certain forces in this country that are trying to label our viewpoint as out of touch and old-fashioned," he said. "They want to silence our viewpoint. Well, it's not working." At the Chick-fil-A in Tampa's Westshore Mall food court, lines were considerably longer than at any of the other concessions. Betsy Fowler, nearly nine months pregnant and with her 2-year-old in tow, wore a black T-shirt proclaiming "We (heart) Chick-fil-A." She ordered the shirt online even before the company was under fire. "I'm a big fan of the food, their educational toys and the fact they close on Sundays," she said. As for the show of support Chick-fil-A was getting, Fowler had only one word: "Awesome!" "It's been insane here all day and I wanted to be part of this," she said. "It's got nothing to do with discrimination. It's about standing up for what you believe. We have to learn to respect everyone's opinion, whether you agree or not."

mbearden@tampatrib.com (813) 259-7613

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