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Judge denies San Antonio's motion to dismiss Chick-fil-A airport lawsuit

Judge denies San Antonio's motion to dismiss Chick-fil-A airport lawsuit

Commuters walk past a Chick-fil-A freestanding franchise in Midtown, New York, October 3, 2015. | Reuters/Rashid Umar Abbasi

A judge in Texas has denied the city of San Antonio’s motion Thursday to dismiss a lawsuit filed after Chick-fil-A was blocked by the city council from opening a new location in the city's airport. 

Bexar County Judge David Canales is allowing a lawsuit to move forward that was brought by five residents who believe the city council discriminated against the popular chicken sandwich chain when it voted last March to block the company from opening a location at San Antonio International Airport.

The lawsuit was filed last September. 

“Now the teams can get on the playing field and argue the merits of the case,” plaintiff Michael Knuffke said in a statement following the judge’s dismissal of the city’s motion.

“One step forward for the case and one large step forward [for] any citizen and for all businesses [and] business owners to have the liberty to give to charities of their choice without (fear of) government retaliation.”

The San Antonio City Council’s vote came after Chick-fil-A, known for its Christian values, faced scrutiny in the media for donating to Christian nonprofit organizations that uphold a traditional Christian belief that marriage is a union between only one man and one woman. 

Last June, Texas Gov. Greg Abbot signed into law the "Save Chick-fil-A" bill, which bars local governments from taking “adverse action” against a company or individual for donating to religious groups.

The law allows “any person who alleges a violation” of the new law to “sue the governmental entity.” 

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The plaintiffs’ lawsuit asks the court to use its authority to prohibit the city from allowing any vendor other than Chick-fil-A from operating in the space at the airport that had been reserved for Chick-fil-A under an initial concession agreement. 

“The city’s continued exclusion of Chick-fil-A is based ‘wholly or partly’ on Chick-fil-A’s past and present contributions, donations, and support for certain religious organizations, including the Salvation Army and the Fellowship of Christian Athletes,” the lawsuit reads. 

Plaintiff Patrick Von Dohlen vowed in September that any vender who attempts to occupy the airport space designated for Chick-fil-A “should be on notice.” 

“The city’s efforts to replace Chick-fil-A violate state law and we are suing to stop this from happening,” Von Dohlen said in a statement. “Any vendor that tries to replace Chick-fil-A could soon be facing an injunction that prevents them from operating.”

A lawyer representing the plaintiffs told KENS5 that the lawsuit is not trying to apply the law passed in June retroactively to a decision by the city council made in March. 

Attorney Jonathan Mitchell explained that the lawsuit is challenging decisions that were made after the new law went into effect. 

"The continuing actions the city of San Antonio is taking to replace Chick-fil-A with a different vendor are all adverse actions," Mitchell argued during the hearing. "It's those actions that postdate September 1 that we're asking the court to enjoin.”

The city’s attorney, Neel Lane, told the news outlet that he is “disappointed” in the result. 

“But it's just a procedural ruling and we will go forward and we will make our case," Lane assured. "We feel strongly that the city never took any action to adversely affect anyone based on their religion or their affiliation of a religious group."

Laura Mayes, the chief communications officer for the city, told The Texas Tribune that the lawsuit is “an attempt by the plaintiffs to improperly use the court to advance their political agenda."

The lawsuit also received criticism from Democratic state legislator Mary Gonzalez, chair of the state Legislature’s LGBT Caucus. In a statement shared with media, she claimed that the new Chick-fil-A law has "created the space for discriminatory lawsuits.”

Chick-fil-A received much criticism from the Christian conservative community late last year when it announced a change to its charitable foundation’s giving structure in which the foundation would no longer donate to the Salvation Army or the Fellowship of Christian Athletes.

After pushback, Chick-fil-A President Dan Cathy told the leader of a Christian conservative organization that the company “inadvertently discredited several outstanding organizations that have effectively served communities for years.”

“Some also questioned if our commitment to our Corporate Purpose was waning. Let me state unequivocally: It is not,” Cathy stressed. 

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