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A national controversy over whether Chick-fil-A is anti-gay has come to Salt Lake City.

On Thursday, a small group of gay-rights advocates picketed the opening of a new store in Sugar House at 1206 E. 2100 South. The protest was planned for the lunch rush, and about eight people gathered at 12:30 p.m., holding signs with slogans such as "Chick-fil-A is anti-gay."

The fast-food chain was the subject of boycotts earlier this year after a restaurant operator in Pennsylvania provided free food at events held by the Pennsylvania Family Institute, a political advocacy group that opposes gay marriage. More than 10,000 people have signed a student-led petition at Indiana University South Bend, demanding that Chick-fil-A be removed from campus.

But the company, which is owned by a Baptist family that takes pride in guiding the business with religious principles, has refuted claims that it is anti-gay. Following the Pennsylvania incident, Dan Cathy, president and chief operating officer, said publicly that while he and his family believe in the "biblical definition of marriage," they love and respect those who disagree and did not consider the free meals to be an endorsement of the Pennsylvania Family Institute or its mission.

But Kyle Foote, organizer of the Salt Lake City protest, said such statements are hurtful toward members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community.

"I can't, in my mind, understand how someone can say, 'I love and respect you, but I spend millions of dollars fighting your equality,' " said Foote, a gay Salt Lake City resident.

QSaltLake magazine recently reported that WinShape, Chick-fil-A's nonprofit foundation, has donated $3 million since 2003 to "anti-gay groups," such as the Eagle Forum, Focus on the Family and the Marriage & Family Legacy Fund.

In an interview with The Salt Lake Tribune in July, Cathy said his company has wrestled with how to address the backlash from the LGBT community, saying the company wants to "give positive encouragement and support" to everyone.

"We're very pro the traditional family of a husband and a wife in marriage, parenting children," Cathy said. "We are not politicians and we don't want to get into having a political voice here, but we support, financially and otherwise, organizations that are going to be strengthening society and raising young men and women that are of the character that we would want in our restaurants."

Foote, 32, said he hopes the protest helps consumers make educated decisions about whether to buy food at Chick-fil-A.

"It's the first time they've opened up a location in Salt Lake City. Salt Lake City is a very inclusive community," he said. "They're coming in and essentially being our neighbor. I wanted to send a message to them and to the community about what we expect of our neighbors and about their history."

Foote became the subject of news stories in 2008 after he pledged $3.4 million to Westminster College in exchange for naming rights to the school's entrepreneur center and was unable to pay. He made the commitment at a time when he was deeply in debt to investors and later used publicity about the pledge to groom targets in an unrelated securities scam for which he was convicted on charges of felony fraud, according to court records.

Related story

Read an interview with Dan Cathy, president and chief operating officer of Chick-fil-A •