ATLANTA – When President Barack Obama said same-sex couples should have the right to marry, it was national news for a few days before the presidential campaign and the country went back to business as usual.
Yet weeks after a fast-food executive doubled down on his opposition to gay marriage, debate rages on about equality, religious values and free speech. "Chick-fil-A Appreciation Day" on Wednesday, with supporters flooding the chain's franchises around the country, was countered with "kiss-ins" by same-sex couples at assorted locations Friday, long after Chick-fil-A president Dan Cathy's initial comments to a religious publication touched off the clash.
That's an unusual amount of staying power for what initially looked like just another skirmish over a hot-button question.
Coursing throughout the conversations on social media, in letters to the editor and in long lines to buy chicken sandwiches is the sense among proud Southerners that the outcry over Cathy's comments smacks of regional stereotyping. When public officials in Boston, Philadelphia and Chicago tell a Southern icon such as Chick-fil-A that it's no longer welcome, and that Cathy should keep his opinions to himself, many in the Atlanta-based chain's home region hear more than a little northern condescension.
"Maybe the reaction is just because we're Southerners," said Rose Mason, who was lunching Friday at a Chick-fil-A in suburban Atlanta.
Mason, who described herself as Christian, said she grew up in New York City. Now, she said, "I deal with my sister telling me we're a little backward. People have this idea that we're just behind on everything. So they view anything we say through that (perception)."
Cathy, a devout Southern Baptist whose family has always been outspoken about its faith, sparked the controversy by telling the Baptist Press that he and his family-owned restaurant chain are "guilty as charged" for openly — and financially — supporting groups that advocate for "the biblical definition of a family unit." He later added that the United States is "inviting God's judgment on our nation when we shake our fist at him and say, 'We know better than you as to what constitutes a marriage."
For Marci Alt, organizer of a protest Friday at a Chick-fil-A in the relatively liberal Atlanta suburb of Decatur, it's Cathy's financial backing of conservative groups such as the Family Research Council that takes the conversation beyond merely what he said.
"Dan Cathy has the same First Amendment rights that I do. If he doesn't want to agree with same-sex marriage, I understand that," she said.
"But when he puts a pen to paper and writes a check to an organization that is about to squash my equal rights, I have a problem with that."
Cathy's comments were in keeping with the tradition established by his father, Truett Cathy, who started the chain in 1967 and never allowed franchises to open on Sundays.
Beyond Friday's organized displays of affection, there were other signs that the furor still had legs. Police were investigating graffiti on the side of a Chick-fil-A restaurant in Torrance, Calif., that read "Tastes like hate" and had a painting of a cow, in reference to the chain's ubiquitous ads featuring cows encouraging people to eat poultry.
In Tucson, Ariz., an executive at a medical manufacturing company lost his job after filming himself verbally attacking a Chick-fil-A employee and posting the video online.
For William Klaus, a 26-year-old X-ray technician with traditional views on marriage, the debate starts at ends with Cathy's liberty to voice his beliefs.
"He said what he said. Freedom of speech. Bottom line," Klaus said at a Chick-fil-A in Jackson, Miss.
However, that goes for Cathy's critics, too, said Klaus, adding that he stopped by the Jackson store simply to pick up some good food.
"For someone to blast him for his opinion, so be it — they have that right."
Holbrook Mohr in Jackson, Miss., Johnny Clark in Decatur, Ga., Tony Winton in Davie, Fla., and Melissa Nelson-Gabriel in Pensacola, Fla., contributed to this report.