By TALIA WIENER
wiener@montclairlocal.news

A Montclair resident’s petition opposing the construction of Chick-fil-A at a nearby Garden State Parkway rest stop garnered more than 1,300 signatures in its first week, and is continuing to grow.

Bill Courson told Montclair Local he rejects the values espoused by the Chick-fil-A corporation — he said the corporation has opposed human rights, reproductive rights, the right to marriage equality and more. The company has long drawn criticism from supporters of LGBTQ rights in particular for donations it or its executives have made to anti-LGBTQ causes, though it stopped supporting at least some controversial groups a decade ago.

And Courson said he knew much of Montclair would be on his side.

“Montclair is a progressive, welcoming, very diverse community,” said Courson, who is also the senior community advocate for Out Montclair, a local group focused on LGBTQ+ pride and solidarity founded by Councilman Peter Yacobellis last year. “The values that are espoused and promoted by the Chick-fil-A organizations are utterly out of consonance with those of the majority of Montclairions.”

Courson created the Change.org petition Jan. 19 and began sharing it on Facebook the next day. He said he expects the signature count to continue growing and wouldn’t be surprised if it reaches 4,000 or more. He plans to send it to New Jersey Turnpike Authority leadership and Gov. Phil Murphy on Aug. 1.

The New Jersey Turnpike Authority announced Jan. 3 that the McDonald’s restaurant at the Brookdale South service area in Bloomfield would be demolished and replaced by new restaurants, including Chick-fil-A. Construction is set to be completed in 2023, with costs shared by NJTA and Iris Buyer LLC, according to the announcement. 

Chick-fil-A’s charitable arm stopped supporting several controversial groups that opposed LGBTQ rights in 2012, amid backlash over its ties to them and anti-same-sex marriage statements by CEO Dan Cathy, son of founder S. Truett Cathy. But in subsequent years it continued support for groups including the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, which requires student leaders to sign a “sexual purity statement” saying that “neither heterosexual sex outside of marriage nor any homosexual act constitute an alternative lifestyle acceptable to God.” It also continued to support the Salvation Army, which ThinkProgress describes as having a “long record of opposing legal protections for LGBTQ Americans,” but also notes now reflects policies against discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity on its website. 

In 2019, the company dropped support for both groups, saying it was moving away from multi-year commitments to charities and would reassess its philanthropy each year. The company said its philanthropy would focus on education, homelessness and hunger, but also said its partnerships “could include faith-based and non-faith-based charities.”

According to Daily Beast reporting last year, Dan Cathy continued to donate to the National Christian Charitable Foundation — one of the largest funders of the fight against the Equality Act, which would make it illegal to discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identiy. 

NJTA spokesperson Tom Feeney has not yet responded to a voicemail left Monday, Jan. 24 on his office phone and an email sent the same day to his work address. The Chick-fil-A public relations team has not yet responded to a message sent to the press email Jan. 24. 

Yacobellis, Montclair’s first openly LGBTQ council member, told Montclair Local he opposes the Chick-fil-A construction, citing the company’s history of funding anti-LGBTQ efforts. 

“This is a really disappointing decision that I hope will get reversed even if it means breaking a contract,” Yacobellis said. “And from a practical perspective, I really don't understand why a restaurant that is closed on Sundays would be selected for a Garden State Parkway rest stop. That's just silly to me.” 

Yacobellis said his comments reflect his opinions as a councilman, not those of Out Montclair. 

Members of the Montclair-based Trans Affirming Alliance also oppose the Chick-fil-A construction — they’d rather see a business that provides living-wage jobs for all employees, especially people of transgender experience, founder and chair Celeste Fiore told Montclair Local. 

“Trans Affirming Alliance welcomes any pledge by businesses operating on the Garden State Parkway to recruit, hire and retain transgender people,” Fiore said. 

Bloomfield Mayor Michael Venezia and Councilman Rich Rockwell released statements earlier in January criticizing the NJTA’s decision, urging them to reconsider. The Chick-fil-A would be “an affront to all of the citizens of Bloomfield,” Rockwell said. 

Councilman Bob Russo said he supports Courson’s petition and the Bloomfield officials speaking out against the construction. Chick-fil-A is “owned by reactionary investors,” he said. 

Councilwoman Robin Schlager declined to comment. Mayor Sean Spiller, Deputy Mayor Bill Hurlock, Councilman David Cummings and Councilwoman Lori Price Abrams have not yet responded to messages sent to their township emails Jan. 24 asking for a comment on the new Chick-fil-A location.