Chick-fil-A was packed Wednesday, everywhere, as citizens who oppose same-sex marriage staged a heretofore unique American protest that involved the consumption of much fried chicken.
At Tampa Bay area restaurants, cars in drive-through lanes clogged traffic and lines of people stretched from counter to door. Reports from across the country suggest the chicken crush was equally vibrant elsewhere.
"It's a Christian decision," said Rick Coulter, 48, of Lakeland, who came to one of the chain's Tampa locations Wednesday. "The homosexual community can speak out so why can't the CEO of a company express his views?"
The rush on chicken was an organized effort to support Dan Cathy, president of the Atlanta-based chain, who recently said the country was inviting God's judgment by flouting "the Biblical definition of the family unit."
The remarks, and the company's financial support for causes perceived as antigay, led to widespread condemnation. Mayors in Boston, San Francisco and Chicago denounced Cathy. The Jim Henson company pulled its toys from Chick-fil-A meals and directed revenue from the toys to GLAAD, a gay rights organization, saying it has "celebrated and embraced diversity for over 50 years."
Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee tried to turn the tables by organizing a Chick-fil-A Appreciation Day.
The event cast the fast-food company's more than 1,600 restaurants as new battlegrounds in the country's culture wars. It turned an innocuous act of gastronomic indulgence into a political statement.
Masses embraced the opportunity.
The parking lot of the Chick-fil-A on W Waters Avenue in Tampa was crowded with cars bearing bumper stickers that said "Take Back America!!!" and "Restore America Now" and "Stand Up For America: Be American!" The store in South Tampa was so crowded that a line of cars backed up traffic on S Dale Mabry Highway for 200 yards. A manager directed overflow traffic at the packed Chick-fil-A on Fourth Street in St. Petersburg.
In Spring Hill, at the chain's Cortez Boulevard restaurant, in the midst of customers dressed in red, white and blue, the president of the Hernando Tea Party broke into The Star-Spangled Banner. The room grew silent. After a few moments, one by one, voices started to join in.
Those standing in line said it gave them chills.
"We're here to support them because they honored traditional marriage," said John DiRienzo, who came out with his wife, Marietta. "And more importantly, we're here to support the idea that people can state what they feel and not feel like they have to be embarrassed by it."
He said they had been in line for 20 minutes.
"We'll wait as long as we have to," chimed in Marietta DiRienzo.
In front of the restaurant, 63-year-old Obadiah Franklin knelt in all red clothes — from his baseball cap to his socks and Nike's — with a 12-foot by 8-foot cross slung over his shoulder. Near the top of the red cross, Franklin wrapped a crown of thorns made by a nomadic sheep-herding tribe in Israel.
He said he came out to support Cathy.
"I love homosexuals. I love lesbians," he said. "But I hate their sin. I speak the truth to them and tell them, 'I love you, Jesus loves you, but I don't like what you're doing.' As a minister, I've got to be honest and call sin, sin."
Many of those who spoke with reporters said they had homosexual friends or family. But they disagreed with homosexuals who tried to influence where they could eat chicken.
"I think (Dan Cathy) sticks by what he believes and that's great," said Ellen Moore, 50, of Tampa. "The gay community can stick by what they believe, too. That's fine. But I'm not going to not come here because they tell me to."
Some saw this as President Barack Obama infringing on their rights.
"This is middle America talking," said Carol McCarthy, 75, of Brooksville. "He's been slowly invading all our rights. …
"He's attacking people who don't fall in line. You don't fall in line, this is what you get. This is middle America. The silent majority."
Several Chick-fil-A managers declined to answer questions, pointing reporters instead to a company statement.
"The Chick-fil-A culture and service tradition in our restaurants is to treat every person with honor, dignity and respect — regardless of their belief, race, creed, sexual orientation or gender," it said, adding that the debate over same-sex marriage is best left "to the government and political arena."
For now the restaurant is the arena.
Coulter, of Lakeland, planned to eat all three meals at Chick-fil-A on Wednesday. He said his church has decided to feed only Chick-fil-A to the homeless as part of its ministry, to further show support.
"I hope what happens is that we hear from Chick-fil-A tomorrow that they had the biggest sales day in franchise history," he said.
Coulter likely won't be disappointed, if the turnout at the restaurant in Hernando is any indication.
"I know this, we're going to shatter records," said Ben Wilson, marketing director of the Cortez Boulevard outlet. "Records are being broken all across the country and we're right there with them."
Chick-fil-A posted $4.1 billion in sales last year.