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ATLANTA -- Gay rights advocates were surprised Thursday that the president of fast-food chain Chick-fil-A has taken a public stand against same-sex marriage.
Chick-fil-A President Dan Cathy said this week that his privately owned company is "guilty as charged" in support of what he called the biblical definition of the family unit.
The Atlanta-based chain opened its first location in a Georgia mall in 1967 and has grown to more than 1,615 restaurants in 39 states, with annual sales over $4.1 billion, according to its Web site.
"We are a family-owned business, a family-led business, and we are married to our first wives. We give God thanks for that," Mr. Cathy told the Baptist Press, the news agency of the Southern Baptist Convention.
"He's taking a bold stand," said Tony Perkins, the president of the Family Research Council in Washington, D.C. "Chick-fil-A is a Bible-based, Christian-based business who treats their employees well. They have been attacked in the past about their stand. But they refuse to budge on this matter, and I commend them for what they are doing."
Chick-fil-A has been under fire from gay rights groups since early 2011, when it was revealed that an independent operator in Pennsylvania supplied food to an event sponsored by a group formed to defeat same-sex marriage initiatives.
Chad Griffin, president of the Human Rights Campaign that works for same-sex-marriage, said Chick-fil-A "has finally come clean" after "cloaking its positions for years."
"While they may have been in neutral, kicking this fight into overdrive now allows fair-minded consumers to make up their own minds whether they want to support an openly discriminatory company," Mr. Griffin said in a statement.
Chick-fil-A released its own statement, saying it has a history of applying biblically based principles to its business, such as keeping its stores closed on Sundays.
"The Chick-fil-A culture and service tradition in our restaurants is to treat every person with honor, dignity, and respect -- regardless of their belief, race, creed, sexual orientation or gender," according to the statement.
"Going forward, our intent is to leave the policy debate over same-sex marriage to the government and political arena," it said.
One longtime observer said he was not surprised by the comments by Mr. Cathy, son of the restaurant's founder, Truett Cathy.
"It could be that they've determined that they already have this identity, so let's just own it," said Lake Lambert, dean of the college of liberal arts at Mercer University and author of Spirituality Inc.: Religion in the American Workplace.
"But I think it could present challenges to them as they expand outside of the South," Mr. Lambert said.
Mr. Cathy acknowledged to the Baptist Press that his stand may cost the company some customers.
"We know that it might not be popular with everyone, but thank the Lord, we live in a country where we can share our values and operate on biblical principles," he said.