Five people are suing the city of San Antonio, saying that they were harmed because the city denied a contract to Chick-fil-A at the local airport. The plaintiffs aren’t associated with Chick-fil-A – they just like the food and say that the restaurant lost its contract because “it donates money to Christian organizations that oppose homosexual behavior.”
And the Texas Supreme Court could soon hear their case, which raises the same question that the state’s new abortion ban raises about whether random people can be empowered to sue even if they weren’t personally affected by someone else’s actions.
In 2019, the San Antonio City Council voted to deny a contract to Chick-fil-A at its airport, in part because of its donations to extreme anti-LGBTQ organizations that promote conversion therapy and oppose marriage equality, but also because the restaurant is closed on Sundays and would therefore reduce food options for travelers that day.
The decision was widely derided by Christian conservatives, who said that it was an attack on Christianity since, to them, Christianity is synonymous with homophobia. The state of Texas passed the “Save Chick-fil-A law”, which allows anyone in the state to sue if they believe a government entity denied anyone a contract or a benefit due to their religious beliefs.
If that sounds familiar, it’s because Texas’s new ban on abortions after the sixth week was modeled on the Save Chick-fil-A bill. Both of them allow anyone to sue someone else for violating the law instead of just limiting lawsuits to people who are actually harmed by another person’s actions (or relying on police or regulatory authorities). Both bills effectively allow anyone with the time to try to collect a bounty in court.
“It was not our intent at the time to set the table for the heartbeat bill, but when we began putting the heartbeat bill together, it did make it easier since we’d already done it in the Chick-fil-A bill,” state Sen. Bryan Hughes (R) told the Houston Chronicle. He introduced the abortion ban, which he refers to as “the heartbeat bill,” in the state senate.
Normally, if Chick-fil-A thought that someone was illegally discriminating against it, it would have to file the lawsuit since Chick-fil-A is the party that lost out on the contract. But under the Save Chick-fil-A law – which Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) famously signed in 2019 surrounded by Chick-fil-A boxes – anyone can sue. Just like how the abortion ban in 2021 allows neighbors to sue, for example, an Uber driver they believe drove a woman to get an abortion.
And Chick-fil-A doesn’t even want the contract anymore. After the city council’s 2019 vote, the Federal Aviation Administration under Donald Trump opened an investigation into the city and the city later agreed to offer Chick-fil-A a contract again as part of a deal with federal officials. Chick-fil-A refused and today a Whataburger occupies that spot in the San Antonio airport.
That didn’t stop the five area residents from suing for religious discrimination against Chick-fil-A after the Save Chick-fil-A bill passed. One of the plaintiffs, Patrick Von Dohlen, is the co-founder of the anti-LGBTQ organization San Antonio Family Association. He says that he wants a court to force the city to offer the contract to Chick-fil-A again.
An appeals court last year ruled against them. The city normally has sovereign immunity that protects governments from being sued over the laws they pass – this is why legal challenges to laws generally name the head of a department or an enforcement agency as a defendant. The Save Chick-fil-A law takes away that immunity… but it was passed after the San Antonio City Council’s decision, so it didn’t apply yet.
The appeals court ruled against the plaintiffs because of immunity and completely avoided getting into the question of whether five random people can sue the city because it denied a contract to a business they’re not associated with.
But the state supreme court could change that.
“The Texas Supreme Court has repeatedly held that state court plaintiffs must prove they have the same kind of standing as federal court plaintiffs,” attorney Neel Lane, who is representing San Antonio, said. “If the court drops that requirement here, it will open up municipalities to lawsuits by people who have not been injured and have no real stake in the outcome. Cities are facing enough strain already.”
Republicans, though, are hoping that the state supreme court will rule on the standing issue when it comes to the Save Chick-fil-A law and affirm the idea that people who are not Chick-fil-A can sue because Chick-fil-A was denied a contract. That’s a key part of how the abortion ban functions and a departure from how the legal system usually works that they’re hoping the high court will uphold.
“That’s what’s interesting about it is that the court could decide that standing issue and whatever they decide about that issue would have direct implications for S.B. 8 [the abortion ban],” said Dallas lawyer Jason Steed.
State Sen. Hughes and state Rep. Matt Krause (R), who sponsored the abortion ban in the state House, filed a brief asking the Texas Supreme Court to take up the Chick-fil-A case and rule in favor of the plaintiffs.
“It’s definitely a case we’re following,” Hughes said.