SALT LAKE CITY — Chick-fil-A restaurants around Utah and the United States reported inflated crowds and lines out the door as customers took part in "Chick-Fil-A Appreciation Day" Wednesday.
Controversy erupted in July after Chick-fil-A President Dan Cathy spoke out in support of "the biblical definition of the family unit," drawing criticism from the gay and lesbian community, equal rights advocacy groups and some civic leaders across the country for the business owner's anti-gay marriage stance.
But supporters of traditional marriage, the owner's right to free speech, and the restaurant chain itself rose to Cathy's defense, spurred on by former Arkansas governor and GOP presidential candidate Mike Huckabee's call to patronize the restaurants Wednesday.
"Today has been a crazy, busy day," said Andrew Allman, owner of the Chick-fil-A restaurant at City Creek Center. "It's rivaled anything we've ever seen."
Several municipal officials in the country responded to Cathy's remarks with threats that they would block Chick-fil-A restaurants from opening in their respective cities.
Boston Mayor Thomas Menino sent a letter, saying, "(t)here is no place for discrimination on Boston's Freedom Trail and no place for your company alongside it." Menino later retracted that statement.
Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel said Chick-fil-A does not represent "Chicago values" and he said it should invest elsewhere. But he, too, later backed down.
David Cortman of the Alliance Defending Freedom said threats to deny businesses the right to operate based on the beliefs of their owners are not constitutional.
"The government shouldn't be in the business of threatening or punishing people for their thoughts or ideas — whether they are individuals or businesses themselves," Cortman said. "I think the irony here is that they are claiming this is an issue of freedom and civil rights, but they're actually the ones who would be violating the civil rights of Chick-fil-A not to allow them to open up their business simply because of their views."
Allman said lines during lunchtime wound around the City Creek Center food court. As a whole, business was better Wednesday than during City Creek's opening weekend in March, when the restaurant broke Utah records for Chick-fil-A openings and sold a meal every five seconds during peak hours.
In response to the controversy, the Utah Pride Center issued a statement encouraging members of the LGBT community to individually decide whether or not to patronize any establishment.
"We encourage LGBTQ community members and our allies to choose and spend their money wisely," the statement read. "If an institution or business and its practices/stances/decisions do not align with our values, we have the choice to not endorse their views or support them with our hard-earned dollars. We encourage careful deliberation before making these important decisions."
At a Chick-fil-A restaurant in Midvale, customers waited in lines that filled the restaurant and extended outside the door. Cars for the drive-up window snaked through the Family Center at Fort Union parking lot, blocking the entrances to neighboring businesses.
"I'm really glad at the support they have today," Kelcey Grinder said while waiting in her vehicle for her turn to order. "(Cathy) has an opinion and he has a right to believe in what he believes and honestly, I agree with him."
Grinder said it was Cathy's conviction in the face of opposition, more than his stance on gay marriage, that had prompted her patronage on Wednesday.
"I'm glad he doesn't want to back down from what he believes and change it just to get customers in his store," she said.
Many customers at the Fort Union store agreed with Grinder, citing Cathy's defense of his beliefs as their main motivation for participating in the appreciation day event. But several people, who either disagreed with Cathy's stance on gay marriage or who were unaware of Wednesday's significance, turned away when they saw the long lines.
"I don't agree with him," Nicole Fernandez said before pulling her car out and away from the drive-up line.
When Steve Goodrich, a Lehi resident, emerged from the restaurant, he said it had taken him more than 30 minutes to make his way through the line.
"It was worth it," he said. "Standing up for what you believe in is great."
Kevin Lassig, who was waiting to enter the restaurant and get out of the sun, said he was unfazed by the delay.
"I have the same beliefs, so I support (Cathy) in it," he said. "It'll take 40 minutes before you get through the line — big deal."
Jim Harris, an assistant pastor at the Calvary Chapel, said his congregation has a monthly Church in the Park event that happened to coincide with Wednesday's event. Instead of purchasing and cooking hot dogs and hamburgers, Harris said the organizers decided instead to have Chick-Fil-A cater the event.
"We stand behind the comments that Dan Cathy made," Harris said. "We just support traditional marriage and saying it's a biblical principle."
Alan Moeller — who knows the Midvale owner personally and whose wife, Margot, works at the store — said he was just in line to get a chicken sandwich and say hello to his wife. He said before Margot left for work on Wednesday, she expressed some concern about keeping up with the crowds.
"She's just hoping that they don't all ask for water," he said.
Huckabee, in anticipation of the event, said on a Facebook page: "The goal is simple. Let's affirm a business that operates on Christian principles and whose executives are willing to take a stand for the Godly values we espouse by simply showing up and eating at Chick-fil-A on Wednesday, August 1."
Contributing: Keith McCord, Jackie Hicken