The theme of next month’s annual International Economic Development Council (IEDC) conference — which approximately 1,500 people are expected to attend — will be “inclusive economic development.” But a keynote speaker at the Atlanta gathering is none other than the head of one of America’s least inclusive companies: Chick-fil-A chairman, president, and CEO Dan Cathy.
Though it has funded and backed anti-LGBTQ causes for years, it was not until 2012 that Chick-fil-A became nationally known for its exclusionary views. That year, Cathy confirmed the restaurant chain’s anti-gay political agenda, telling the Baptist Press that his company was “guilty as charged.”
Following national backlash, Cathy claimed he and the company would stay out of the debate on LGBTQ rights and “treat every person with honor, dignity and respect — regardless of their beliefs, race, creed, sexual orientation and gender.” But five and a half years later, the company remains one of the largest national companies without a written non-discrimination policy for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or queer employees, as well as a 0 score on the Human Rights Campaign’s Corporate Equality Index.
Additionally, a recent tax filing for the company’s tax-exempt foundation revealed that it continues to fund anti-LGBTQ organizations like the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, the Paul Anderson Youth Home, and the Salvation Army.
ThinkProgress reached out to the IEDC to ask why an organization whose own code of ethics demands “all economic development activities are conducted with equality of opportunity for all segments of the community” picked Cathy to headline its annual conference. In a phone interview, the organization’s president, Jeff Finkle, defended the decision, while acknowledging that the organization’s leadership had disagreed on the matter.
“Is this my easiest thing to defend in my career? It is not,” he said. “Am I willing to defend it? I am.”
Finkle explained that Cathy’s speech will focus on “the good work Chick-fil-A, their foundation, and the [Cathy] family has done in supporting the African American community on Atlanta’s Westside […], a case study on economic development in that area.” He also noted that some of the other prominent speakers at the conference are openly gay.
Chick-fil-A’s anti-LGBTQ record, Finkle added, “doesn’t represent IEDC.” He said that Cathy’s selection initially came from the organization’s partner, the Metro Atlanta Chamber. That group did not immediately respond to a ThinkProgress inquiry, but has presented itself as pro-diversity and against sexual orientation discrimination in the past.
Finkle said he believes Cathy and Chick-fil-A are improving on LGBTQ issues. “I think if you look at where their donations were in 2010, 2011, and 2012 — and where they are in 2018 and in the future — I think you’ll see a company that is changing.”
He added, “If you don’t allow them to move, [South Carolina Sen.] Strom Thurmond would have stayed anti-Black, Sen. [Robert] Byrd in West Virginia would have been the same way. They became leaders of civil rights legislation.”
Asked about the fact that the Chick-fil-A Foundation actually gave a very similar amount (about $1.8 million) to anti-LGBTQ causes in its most recent tax filing to its 2010 totals, Finkle said he was aware of the donations and had been assured the company would limit them moving forward.
“They told us that,” he said. “They said, after this year, there’s only gonna be one group left that some people in the LGBTQ community will object to — that’s the Salvation Army. They told us from now forward they are ceasing all the other contributions that have been deemed offensive.”
The Chick-fil-A Foundation did not immediately respond to a ThinkProgress inquiry about that claim. However, it would not be the first time the company has tried to give the impression that it has evolved.
Others are less sure of the progress Chick-fil-A claims to have made. Jeff Graham, executive director of Georgia Equality, told ThinkProgress that by refusing to adopt an LGBTQ-inclusive non-discrimination policy, Chick-fil-A has fallen out of the corporate mainstream in the state.
As of 2014, he said, “500 of the largest employers in the state of Georgia offered these protections.” And more recently, hundreds of businesses signed a pledge to welcome all people, regardless of race, sex, color, national origin, ethnicity, religion, age, disability, sexual orientation, or gender identity. Chick-fil-A, he noted, was not on either list.
“We would hope that all companies would adopt the same policies…the vast majority of their peers in the corporate world offer,” he said. “We’d love to see Chick-fil-A offer those protections. It’s good for business, which is why it is a standard business practice.”
Moreover, he added, as a “family-owned business that talks a lot about their religious values,” Chick-fil-A adopting an inclusive policy would be an especially important statement, one that says “protecting people from discrimination does not violate someone’s faith.”
UPDATE (9/4, 1:28 p.m.): Dan Cathy is no longer listed on the event site as a keynote speaker.