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NFTA can't block Chick-fil-A at airport, say civil rights advocates

The Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority could open itself up to lawsuits if it directly bars a Chick-fil-A from opening at Buffalo Niagara International Airport, according to the American Civil Liberties Union and a member of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights.

"Government actors cannot officially silence speech or take punitive actions based on a person’s or private entity’s political viewpoints," said Erika Lorshbough, the assistant director of the New York branch of the ACLU, in a statement. "The First Amendment does not permit the NFTA to base its contracting decisions on the political views of a vendor. However, the First Amendment only applies to government action, not to a decision made by a private corporation such as an airport supplier or contractor.”

A commissioner for the civil rights commission was even more pointed.

"I urge the NFTA to rescind its ban of Chick-fil-A," wrote Republican Peter Kirsanow, one of eight commissioners, in a caustically worded letter to the NFTA board. "Failing that, I expect Chick-fil-A likely will sue the NFTA members in their official and personal capacities. I doubt the taxpayers of Buffalo will consider the legal fees and damages the NFTA will incur to be worth Board members’ exercise in political virtue."

NFTA spokesman Helen Tederous restated the NFTA's position that the decision to remove Chick-fil-A as a vendor came from concessionaire Delaware North, which offered no reason for the change. The two organizations have had no in-depth conversations this week about the concessionaire's decision, she said. Conversations are expected next week, she said.

"We are going to be talking to Delaware North in the near future to talk about next steps in regard to everything," she said.

On Thursday, Erie County Clerk Michael "Mickey" Kearns sent a letter to the NFTA saying that the County Clerk's Office, under law, has funneled more than $139 million in mortgage tax revenue to the NFTA since 2009. He asked the authority not to allow itself to be "held hostage" by Assemblyman Sean Ryan, who opposed letting the restaurant open at the airport.

"We've heard from people and they say, 'We like Chick-fil-A. This is stupid,' " Kearns said.

After the NFTA announced last week that the chicken sandwich shop would be coming to the airport, Ryan, a Buffalo Democrat, said the owners of the Georgia restaurant chain have a history of supporting and funding anti-LGBTQ organizations. He noted the San Antonio City Council rejected a plan to open a Chick-fil-A at the San Antonio International Airport.

The next day, Delaware North said it would no longer have Chick-fil-A anchor a revamped food concessions area, prompting a strong backlash.

"We've been getting a considerable amount of feedback," said Tederous, the NFTA spokeswoman.

Most of the feedback was negative, she said.

"We do not have a political or social agenda or discriminate against any group," according to a Chick-fil-A statement last week. "More than 145,000 people from different backgrounds and beliefs represent the Chick-fil-A brand. We embrace all people, regardless of religion, race, gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation or gender identity.“

Kirsanow criticized Ryan for his "intolerance."

Delaware North — not the NFTA — made the decision to remove Chick-fil-A from the airport plan, Ryan said.

"This whole commissioner's letter is based on something that's not true," Ryan said.

Kirsanow also targeted the NFTA.

"The only manifest evidence of discrimination in this matter is by the NFTA," he wrote. "The NFTA is engaging in discrimination on the basis of speech and religion. This is every bit as prohibited by the First Amendment when directed at traditional Christians as it would be if NFTA blocked the opening of a Muslim, Jewish or Buddhist-owned restaurant because of the owner's religion."

A Delaware North spokesperson could not be reached for comment Thursday.

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