Chick-fil-A's reputation as an opponent of same-sex marriage has imperiled the fast-food chain's potential return to Denver International Airport, with several City Council members this week passionately questioning a proposed concession agreement.
Councilman Paul Lopez called opposition to the chain at DIA "really, truly a moral issue on the city."
His position comes despite ardent assurances from the concessionaires — who have operated other DIA restaurants — that strict nondiscrimination policies will include protections based on sexual orientation and gender identity.
Robin Kniech, the council's first openly gay member, said she was most worried about a local franchise generating "corporate profits used to fund and fuel discrimination." She was first to raise Chick-fil-A leaders' politics during a Tuesday committee hearing.
The normally routine process of approving an airport concession deal has taken a rare political turn. The Business Development Committee on Tuesday stalled the seven-year deal with a new franchisee of the popular chain for two weeks.
Should the committee reject the lease, an individual member — if one is willing — could introduce the concession deal in the full council. Ten of the 13 members attended Tuesday's meeting, and none rose to defend Chick-fil-A, although some didn't weigh in.
"We can do better than this brand in Denver at our airport, in my estimation," new member Jolon Clark said.
At the committee's next meeting, Sept. 1, city attorneys likely will brief the committee behind closed doors on legal considerations affecting the decision.
City leaders in Chicago attempted to block a new Chick-fil-A location for similar reasons three years ago, ultimately backing down after reaching an agreement with the chain. Mayors in Boston and San Francisco vowed to fend off any foray by Chick-fil-A into those cities. The issue continues to flare on some university campuses.
But legal scholars often have come to the company's defense, raising company leaders' First Amendment rights.
The issue is new for the Denver council.
"This discussion — the way it's unfolding here — hasn't quite happened before in terms of a contract decision that you all have been asked to make, in all my years here," assistant city attorney David Broadwell told the committee Tuesday. He said he was caught off guard by the controversy.
A previous Chick-fil-A franchise operated at DIA briefly a decade ago. This time, Atlanta-based Concessions International and Denver's Delarosa Restaurant Concepts have a 60-40 partnership for a location in Concourse B's food court, replacing a Steak Escape.
Mike De La Rosa, Delarosa's president, said the licensing agreement requires sharing 7 percent of royalties with Chick-fil-A, a proportion that Councilman Albus Brooks said was lower than he'd expected.
"Any and all hiring, promotion — any and all of those decisions are made by us," De La Rosa told the committee. "We have a long history of diversity, all those kind of things, between both companies. These would not be issues."
In a statement, Chick-fil-A corporate officials said that their company is "focused on providing everyone great food in an atmosphere of genuine hospitality. We hope to welcome all guests to any of our locations, including a proposed licensed location at the Denver International Airport."
Several council members — including four on the six-member committee — raised questions related to Chick-fil-A's religion-influenced operation, which includes keeping all franchises closed on Sundays.
Most focused on political firestorms sparked by remarks made by Chick-fil-A's now-CEO Dan Cathy, reaching a peak in 2012 after court decisions favorable to same-sex marriage. The company also came under fire for donations made by charitable arms to groups opposing LGBT causes.
Last year, Cathy said publicly that he regretted inserting the company into political debates. Its foundations also cut back on donations to groups that some considered anti-gay.
Kniech asked De La Rosa, "If the national corporation with which you are affiliated once again puts themselves at the center of a national debate about depriving people and their families of rights, would you as a concessionaire have any ability to influence that?"
"I don't believe so," he said.
"I don't think you would, either," Kniech said. "And that's my concern."
Lopez compared Chick-fil-A's past politics to divisive remarks made this year by Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump about immigration and other issues, saying: "I would throw up in my mouth a little bit if we did business with Trump."
Kniech, Lopez and other members said DIA's reputation was at stake, although airport officials view the concession as a big potential money-maker.
DIA has estimated the restaurant's first-year sales at $4.1 million, with $616,278 paid each year in concession fees. Chick-fil-A restaurants typically generate more in six days a week, DIA says, than most fast-food concessions that are open all seven.
DIA officials told the committee that they started with a dozen concession proposals for the space.
Neil Maxfield, the senior vice president of concession, noted that a 2013 survey of airport users "identified Chick-fil-A as being the second-most sought-after quick service brand at the airport, second to Chipotle," which didn't apply for the space.