The airport battle over Chick-fil-A is only the tip of the big government spear

You may have already heard about two airports, one in Texas and one in New York, booting Chick-fil-A from their restaurant areas. These were both incidents of blatant discrimination based on the religious beliefs and speech of the CEO of the company, not any actions that the restaurant was taking in terms of their customers, employees or community. But after having had some time to consider how this played out, what we’re seeing is potentially the first hint of something that may already be taking place on a broader scale.

I don’t want to overshadow the awful and ironic nature of these specific cases, though. That’s something Rich Lowry wrote eloquently about at National Review yesterday.

This is about punishing the Georgia-based company for the faith of its leadership. The official bans are anti-Christian, unconstitutional and a harbinger of a larger effort to hunt down and punish any organization that has uncongenial views on sexual morality.

In San Antonio, the leader of the anti-Chick-fil-A effort, City Councilman Roberto Treviño, explained that, “Everyone has a place here, and everyone should feel welcome when they walk through our airport.” The irony of discriminating against Chick-fil-A in order to demonstrate the city’s famous open-ness was, of course, lost on him.

As for everyone feeling welcome, it’s not as though Chick-fil-A refuses to serve or hire anyone. It didn’t become the fastest-growing restaurant chain in America, projected to take third place in sales after McDonald’s and Starbucks, by putting obstacles between hungry patrons and its sandwiches (except for on Sundays, when it is closed).

All true, but as I said above, let’s consider the mechanisms used to allow this to happen. If Chick-fil-A was opening a new store on Main Street in your home town and some elected official came in and demanded they shut down because of the CEO’s religious beliefs, the ensuing lawsuit would be epic. It’s a battle the government would almost surely lose. But in these cases – most particularly the one in Buffalo, New York – there was a difference.

Government officials were taking advantage of the “quasi-public” entities tasked with taking care of certain infrastructure facilities like airports. These are places where the private sector and the government intersect in dubious ways. The airport is overseen and managed by a group of ostensibly independent civilian experts. In the case of Buffalo, it’s the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority (NFTA). You’d think they would be focusing on things like airline safety and airport security, and for the most part, they do. But they also control the more mundane aspects of operating the airport, such as awarding contracts for construction and the stores and restaurants that are established there.

The members of the NFTA board are hardly independent. Their well-paid positions only land in their laps if they are nominated by the Governor or, in two out of twelve cases, the county legislature. It was the NFTA that originally approved the plans for the restaurant area and for Chick-fil-A to have a store there. And it was the NFTA that immediately backed down when Democratic politicians complained about Chick-fil-A. And because they control all of those contracts and are not technically government employees they are apparently free to do so.

How many other facilities are there around the country where public companies do business and find themselves subject to the whims of elected officials via structures like these? They’re defined as public benefit corporations or public authorities. In New York alone you can find a huge list of them and they control the flow of billions of taxpayer dollars. There’s no doubt in my mind that situations like the one with Chick-fil-A have come up before and we just never heard about it in the press.

This is just something to put a pin in for the future. We’ll poke around a bit and see what else might be going on, but this mashing up of the public and private sectors clearly can’t be having a beneficial effect on free speech or the free market.

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