Arline and Forest Sabin carry food from Chick-fil-A in Westfield Franklin Park in support of Dan Cathy, the chain's owner, in August.
ATLANTA -- The business was doing OK, but at a price. Jack Hayes was tired of operating his massage-therapy clinic seven days a week, juggling employees' and clients' schedules, missing his wife.
In late 2008, Mr. Hayes asked for help. He composed an email to another businessman who had managed to make ends meet with a six-day work week. His request: Should he close on Sunday too?
Two days later, the Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio, business owner got a response. In an email, Dan Cathy, president and chief operating officer of Chick-fil-A, cited Proverbs 3:5-6: "Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways submit to him, and he will make your paths straight."
On the first Sunday of January, 2009, a sign on the door of Connecting Touch Therapy & Wellness Center Inc. of Cuyahoga Falls announced that the business no longer would operate on Sunday. Mr. Hayes' business has five employees; Chick-fil-A has more than 60,000.
"At that point, Mr. Cathy and I were on the same level," Mr. Hayes said. "I would rather be open six days a week with the Lord on my side than seven days without it."
It would be easy to say the Lord is on Mr. Cathy's side; Chick-fil-A, a Georgia-based firm with more than $4 billion in annual sales at 1,600 locations, is one of the nation's largest family-owned restaurant chains.
A more appropriate assessment: Mr. Cathy is on the Lord's side. Those who know Mr. Cathy say he's a businessman who believes the real business of life comes from following the Bible, even if it angers others.
His beliefs have put him to the test. On a national radio show, he said advocates of same-sex marriage are "inviting God's judgment." In another interview, he affirmed his belief that marriage should be between a man and woman.
Mr. Cathy's statements set off a debate that's played out in talk shows, on opinion pages, in blogs, and in Chick-fil-A restaurants everywhere. On Aug. 1, thousands of people crowded Chick-fil-As nationwide in a show of support for Mr. Cathy. Two days later, supporters of same-sex marriage held "kiss-ins" at Chick-fil-A restaurants nationwide.
The controversy echoed another sparked a year ago when critics attacked donations from WinShape Foundation Inc., Chick-fil-A's charity, to organizations that critics say promote hatred of gays.
Some business experts questioned Mr. Cathy's judgment, saying it was pointless for a high-profile executive to embroil his entire business and well-developed brand in the middle of national dispute.
The recent uproar appears to have caught Chick-fil-A by surprise. Mr. Cathy, 59, has been nearly silent in the past few weeks.
Others aren't as quiet.
"He's one of the finest human beings I've ever known," said Ken Bernhardt, a Georgia State University professor and adviser to the chain.
Mr. Bernhardt recalls a colleague who called Mr. Cathy, asking if it was OK if the university used the image of a statue commissioned by Chick-fil-A to adorn T-shirts that would be distributed at an impending conference. Mr. Cathy said sure -- then offered to buy them.
Of course, Mr. Cathy can afford to buy a mountain of T-shirts, Mr. Bernhardt said. But that's not the issue.
"Dan didn't make the person ask for that," Mr. Bernhardt said.
Such personal accounts of Mr. Cathy don't resonate with everyone.
Marci Alt is married to a woman, has two children, and recently started an online petition inviting his family to dine with hers. "I'll even make matzo ball soup for him, like a good Jewish girl."
Ms. Alt said she supports Mr. Cathy's right to speak his mind but is opposed to the chain's WinShape Foundation funding groups that she termed anti-gay.
"It angers me that he's so close-minded that he all he can see is himself," the Decatur, Ga., resident said. "Aren't we all God's children?"
Mr. Cathy has been active in social causes, giving time and money to organizations that care for people living on the margin. Earlier this year, he served food at the Atlanta Mission, a Christian nonprofit that feeds and houses nearly 1,000 people every day. He's been a regular contributor to City of Refuge, a homeless foundation whose headquarters aren't far from the Georgia Dome. Mr. Cathy makes it a stop during bus tours he conducts for Chick-fil-A operators and others.
"I love Mr. Dan," said Vanessa Cowans, a former client who now volunteers at the center, "and I love it when he comes to see me."
Mr. Cathy believes in mixing with people from different economic levels, said Bruce Deel, an ordained minister who founded City of Refuge 15 years ago. Mr. Cathy has a term for it: "Your ears should pop every day." Translation: You should see people from different walks of life daily.
"When I look at Dan, I see a model of consistent leadership," Mr. Deel said. "He doesn't waver."
Not everyone agrees. Anita Beaty, executive director of the Metro Atlanta Task Force for the Homeless, recalled Mr. Cathy spending the night at the shelter and pledging financial help. He cut off his support after giving the task force more than $200,000, but officials expected as much as $500,000 more.
"We were disappointed," said Ms. Beaty, who has filed a lawsuit contending business leaders and others conspired to close the shelter by cutting public funding and private donations. "We were expecting him to make good on his pledge."