United Planes at the San Antonio International Airport
United Airlines jets park at the San Antonio International Airport. Credit: Scott Ball / Rivard Report

The Federal Aviation Administration’s Office of Civil Rights has opened an investigation into the San Antonio City Council’s vote to remove Chick-fil-A from an airport concessions contract.

Michael Freilich, director of the office’s national external operations program, sent a letter to San Antonio Aviation Director Russ Handy on Friday informing the City of the investigation and outlining the complaint that the fast food restaurant was the victim of religious discrimination.

“To assist us in investigating and resolving the concerns related to the complaint, we may be contacting you in the near future to request additional information,” Freilich wrote.

City Council voted in March to exclude Chick-fil-A from a multimillion-dollar contract to operate food and retail shops at San Antonio International Airport. In a 6-4 vote, council members decided to remove the fast-food restaurant from the list of potential restaurants for the airport, citing the company’s association with anti-LGBTQIA groups.

The vote has become a contentious political issue during the local City Council elections – especially in the mayoral runoff race between Mayor Ron Nirenberg and Councilman Greg Brockhouse (D6) set for June 8.

Nirenberg, who was among six council members voting to exclude Chick-fil-A, has said his vote was a business decision based on wanting restaurants to be open seven days a week. Chick-fil-A is closed on Sundays. Brockhouse has said the decision infringed upon religious rights.

“My decision was based on the best interest of passengers, especially the 1.5 million who pass through our airport on Sunday,” Nirenberg said Friday via text. “They should have a full range of options and preferably local ones. Religion has nothing to do with decision on airport retail vendors. The only one to raise the issue of religion has been Councilman Brockhouse.”

But soon after the March 21 vote, the First Liberty Institute, a conservative nonprofit dedicated to preserving religious liberties, asked the U.S. Secretary of Transportation to investigate. That request was forwarded to the FAA.

“American business owners should not have to suffer because they want to operate their businesses in accordance with their religious beliefs,” Keisha Russell, associate counsel to the First Liberty Institute, wrote in a press release. The institute has launched its own investigation into the vote. “Few things are more un-American than government hostility against religion.”

“This is literally Ron’s chickens coming home to roost for his bad decision-making and awful leadership,” Brockhouse said Friday via text. “As mayor, I’ll set standards and qualifications for City contracts that follow the law and do not discriminate.”

Federally funded airports like San Antonio’s can’t discriminate on the basis of religion, race, color, national origin, sex, disability, or age, Freilich wrote.

Councilman Roberto Treviño (D1) made the motion to remove Chick-fil-A because of the concerns constituents had about the chain’s reputation for association with anti-LGBTQIA groups, including those that perform debunked “conversion therapy.”

During discussion before the vote, Councilman Manny Pelaez (D8) said the City should not have a restaurant that some consider to be a “symbol of hate” inside of it. He later said he regretted those comments and should have voted to delay the vote until more discussion and research could be done on the company.

Iris Dimmick

Iris Dimmick

Senior reporter Iris Dimmick covers City Hall, politics, development, and more. Contact her at iris@rivardreport.com