New York – A new bill introduced in the New York State Assembly last week could put iconic fast food chain Chick-fil-A in hot water over its longstanding practice of remaining closed on Sundays for religious reasons.
The proposed legislation, sponsored by Assemblyman Tony Simone (D-NY), would mandate that restaurants operating in New York highway rest stops be open seven days a week. While the bill does not mention Chick-fil-A by name, the justification provided by Simone makes it clear that the Atlanta-based fried chicken purveyor is in legislators’ crosshairs.
“If you want to eat fried chicken while traveling over the holidays, then Chick-fil-A should be open on Sundays,” said Simone in a statement. “This bill is meant to give travelers a variety of food options, including healthy foods, at rest stops rather than limiting options.”
Chick-fil-A has built a cult-like following over its chicken sandwiches and signature waffle fries, but also drawn ire from critics over its founders’ staunchly conservative views, including opposition to same-sex marriage. Founder Truett Cathy, a devout Southern Baptist, instituted the Sunday closure policy so employees “can set aside one day to rest and worship if they choose.”
While the bill would apply to all existing and future restaurants in New York rest stops, Chick-fil-A is specifically highlighted in explanatory documents as an impetus behind the legislation. Some New York Democrats have long bristled at the chain’s Christian-influenced business practices, occasionally spearheading efforts to block new Chick-fil-A locations in the state.
Previous attempts to bar Chick-fil-A from airports in Buffalo, NY and San Antonio, TX have floundered under religious freedom objections. But the latest legislative salvo comes as New York embarks on a major redevelopment initiative at 27 service plazas along the New York State Thruway.
The $450 million project will see 23 plaza restaurants completely rebuilt over the next few years, with renovations at four more. Chick-fil-A is slated to operate restaurants at ten of the refreshed plazas under an existing 33-year contract with the Thruway Authority. However, that agreement was signed with concession company Applegreen, not with Chick-fil-A directly.
That arms-length arrangement may limit immediate impact if the bill becomes law. Contracts already in place between the state and private vendors would be exempted from the 7-day mandate under the legislation.
Still, if passed, the law could hamstring Chick-fil-A’s aspirations for further expansion at New York rest stops when existing leases eventually expire. The company would also face pressure to keep up with competing chains like McDonald’s and Burger King that operate in the plazas with no Sunday closure custom.
Curtailing Chick-fil-A’s signature Sunday service halt without violating First Amendment religious protections may prove tricky, though. When the San Antonio city council voted in 2019 to block a Chick-fil-A location at the municipal airport, Texas lawmakers responded with a “Save Chick-fil-A” bill that barred government entities from taking adverse action against businesses for their religious affiliations.
With only Democratic sponsors, passage of the New York legislation remains uncertain in the politically divided Assembly. Previous efforts to “cancel” Chick-fil-A have actually boosted the brand’s popularity in conservative circles.
The chicken chain has worked to expand its customer base beyond its southern Evangelical Christian roots, announcing revised charitable giving policies in 2019. Chick-fil-A stopped donating to groups opposing same-sex marriage, seeking to shed controvery over its politics.
Despite ruffling progressive feathers with its Christian-influenced business approach, the company continues expanding at a blazing pace. Chick-fil-A is on track to become the third largest fast food chain in the U.S. by sales by the end of 2023, behind only McDonald’s and Starbucks.
Rather than shy away from polarizing debates, Chick-fil-A has leaned into its distinctive identity. As Assemblyman Simone quipped, “If you want fried chicken on Sunday, go to KFC.” For Chick-fil-A’s loyal patrons, being closed on the Lord’s day is a feature, not a bug.
This latest episode in New York exemplifies the larger tensions between blue state liberal values and biblically-rooted southern conservatism that have made Chick-fil-A ground zero in the culture wars. However, with supporters rallying around the brand, don’t expect the restaurant to sacrifice its traditions without a fight.