ATLANTA -- Chick-fil-A is once again in the public relations fryer.
The controversy flared up this week when a Chicago politician said the company was no longer giving to groups that oppose same-sex marriage, angering Christian conservatives who supported Chick-fil-A this summer when its president reaffirmed his opposition to gay marriage. Civil rights groups hailed the turnabout, yet the company never confirmed it and instead released two public statements, neither of which made Chick-fil-A's position any clearer.
The events suggest the Southern franchise may be trying to steer clear of hot-button social issues while it expands in other, less conservative regions of the country. In its statement Thursday, the Georgia-based company said its corporate giving had for many months been mischaracterized.
"Part of our corporate commitment is to be responsible stewards of all that God has entrusted to us," the statement said. "Chick-fil-A's giving heritage is focused on programs that educate youth, strengthen families and enrich marriages, and support communities. We will continue to focus our giving in those areas. Our intent is not to support political or social agendas."
The three-page statement did not say whether that included gay marriages.
The company's response, its second in as many days, was posted on its website after Chicago Alderman Joe Moreno announced the alleged policy change. Moreno said the change followed extended negotiations, and as a result, he would no longer try to block a Chick-fil-A restaurant from opening in his district.
Social networking sites lit up following Moreno's remarks, with many people saying Chick-fil-A had caved to pressure from gay rights organizations.
The Cathy family has always been public about its faith. Since Dan Cathy's father, Truett, opened the first Chick-fil-A in 1967, the restaurants have been closed on Sundays. The company refused to reconsider the policy during the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, sacrificing even more profit.
University of Georgia marketing professor Sundar Bharadwaj said the company is risking alienating its customers.
"You can change your position, but you have to have a rational reason for the change and be consistent and communicate that to your customers," he said. "Two different brands cannot be visible to the customer. Your authenticity is questioned after that, and your brand loses equity."
The company has declined to take any questions from the media.
Earlier this week, before the statements, Dan Cathy tweeted to celebrate a fundraiser by Chick-fil-A's primary charitable arm, the WinShape Foundation. The beneficiary? The Marriage and Family Foundation, which was among organizations cited by gay rights groups as opposing same-sex marriage.
When The Advocate, a leading gay rights publication, called attention to Cathy's tweet, some civil rights groups quickly reassumed the critical posture they had abandoned only a day earlier.
"Chick-fil-A can't claim to be turning over a new leaf while simultaneously funneling thousands of dollars towards a group that does not acknowledge the dignity and respect of LGBT people," said Fred Sainz, a spokesman for The Human Rights Campaign.
In recent years, civil rights advocates have also publicized at least $3 million in contributions the WinShape Foundation has made to conservative organizations such as the Family Research Council. The group's headquarters was the site of a shooting last month when authorities said a gunman and gay rights supporter, carrying a backpack full of Chick-fil-A sandwiches, opened fired on a security guard.
The younger Cathy became a flashpoint this summer when he told the Baptist Press that the company was "guilty as charged" for backing "the biblical definition of a family." In a later radio interview, he ratcheted up the rhetoric: "I think we are inviting God's judgment on our nation when we shake our fist at him and say, `We know better than you as to what constitutes a marriage."'
When gay rights groups protested, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee started a social media campaign for "Chick-fil-A Appreciation Day." It drew hundreds of thousands of supporters and the company later announced that the occasion set a single-day sales record.
Chick-fil-A posted more than $4.1 billion in sales last year, most of it below the Mason-Dixon Line. Just 14 of its restaurants are in the six states and the District of Columbia where gay marriage is legal. Massachusetts has just two locations, both more than 10 miles from Boston.
The company reports that its sales figures have increased annually each year of operation.