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A group of five area religious and political activists are suing the City of San Antonio under the “Save Chick-fil-A” law signed by Gov. Greg Abbott in June.
The lawsuit alleges that the City of San Antonio illegally discriminated against Chick–fil–A when City Council removed the company from the City’s airport concessionaire contract. The plaintiffs claims the City took the action because of the company’s charitable support of Christian organizations.
City Council’s vote in March to remove Chick-fil-A from the contract with concessionaire Paradies Lagardère prompted the legislation, which prohibits “adverse action” by the government against individuals or businesses based on membership, support, or donations to religious groups.
“This is the first citizen[-led] lawsuit that has been filed against the City of San Antonio over its discriminatory treatment of Chick-fil-A and more lawsuits are coming,” plaintiff Patrick Von Dohlen said during a press conference Monday in front of City Council chambers. “We are seeking an immediate injunction that will prohibit the city of San Antonio and Paradies [Lagardère] from replacing Chick-fil-A with any other vendor in the same space across from Gate A6 that had been designated for Chick-fil-A in the original proposal submitted by Paradies.”
Companies seeking to license that space, he added, should be aware that this litigation could prevent it from operating there. Von Dohlen said they too could face lawsuits.
However, City Council voted on the contract months before the “Save Chick-fil-A Bill,” formally known as Senate Bill 1978, was signed by Abbott. New statues cannot be retroactively enforced, so it’s unclear how far the lawsuit will proceed.
But Von Dohlen, who is president of the religious, socially conservative nonprofit San Antonio Family Association (SAFA), said the new law can be applied if the plaintiffs can prove that there’s an “ongoing ban” of Chick-fil-A. “They’ve been in violation since [the Save Chick-fil-A law] went into effect on Sept. 1,” he said.
There is no “ban” on the fast-food restaurant, said Laura Elizabeth Mayes, the City’s chief communications officer.
“This lawsuit is an attempt by the plaintiffs to improperly use the court to advance their political agenda,” Mayes said. “Among the many weaknesses in their case, they are trying to rely on a law that did not exist when Council voted on the airport concessions contract. We will seek a quick resolution from the court.”
Von Dohlen said he and the other plaintiffs – Michael Knuffke, Brian Greco, Jason Khattar, and Daniel Petri – are seeking declaratory and injunctive relief as well as court costs and attorney’s fees, he said. SAFA has set up a GoFundMe page to offset its court costs.
Proponents of the new legislation said it was designed to protect religious freedom. While many analysts have argued that the U.S. Constitution already does this, some Democratic leaders were concerned this new law could be used to allow discrimination against members of the LGBTQIA community.
During a March 21 City Council meeting, Councilman Roberto Treviño (D1) and others cited Chick-fil-A’s history of contributing to anti-LGBTQIA groups as cause to remove it from the contract.
Von Dohlen called City Council’s decision “bigoted and misguided.”
Attorney General Ken Paxton and the Federal Aviation Administration’s Office of Civil Rights have opened investigations into the council’s action.
“Chick-fil-A has given to Christian charities and other charities, too, but it has somehow received a bullseye on its back,” said Knuffke, who questioned whether the council would have voted to oust a company that gave money to Muslim-related nonprofits.
“The ‘Save Chick-fil-A’ statute is not retroactive … and it only applies if the City were dealing directly with the Chick-fil-A business,” said Councilman Manny Pelaez (D8), who is a labor attorney.
“There is a really big misunderstanding out there as to what happened [on the day of the vote]. Most people believe they were dealing directly with Chick-fil-A as an entity when in fact we were really only dealing with one company: Paradies Lagardère.”
The Atlanta-based company, which beat out other concessionaires for the contract, had planned to license Chick-fil-A to operate a restaurant at the San Antonio International Airport. The company agreed to find a different restaurant to license for that space.
“[For these plaintiffs to win, they would] have to prove in court that there was a Chick-fil-A vendor that was denied the opportunity to operate the space and technically that’s not true,” Pelaez said. “The arguments about the First Amendment and freedom certainly are compelling, but facts matter and the fact is there was not a Chick-fil-A operator that we were dealing with.”
“… But everybody has a right to file a lawsuit no matter how frivolous, and they are exercising that right,” he added.
Chick-fil-A might have a better chance in court, he said, or Paradies Lagardère. There have been no indications that either company plans legal action.
Mayor Ron Nirenberg said he voted to remove the company because it is not open on Sundays, one of the busiest days for air travel.
Members of groups that attended the press conference Monday, including the Texas Values Coalition and Texas Justice Foundation, said they would deliver Chick-fil-A meals to each City Council member’s downtown office the same day.
“I love eating at Chick-fil-A,” Pelaez said, but he won’t be in that office until Tuesday. “I try not to eat day-old chicken.”