Hundreds of customers line up outside a Chick-fil-A restaurant in Laguna… (Don Bartletti, Los Angeles…)
The chicken sandwich became a political statement for a day as supporters of the Chick-fil-A president's stance against gay marriage caused traffic jams at the fast-food chain's restaurants nationwide.
Baking in the Southern California summer heat, lines of Chick-fil-A fans snaked around the eateries and down streets Wednesday as patrons ignored gay rights advocates armed with "Cluck Off" signs and vuvuzelas urging them to eat elsewhere.
Crammed drive-throughs caused traffic jams on nearby streets, often requiring attendants to direct cars. At several locations in Orange County and Long Beach, lunchtime crowds swelled to more than 100 people.
PHOTOS: Chick-fil-A at center of controversy
Similar crowds converged across the country at Chick-fil-A, which has more than 1,600 branches. In Madison, Ala., police were called to maintain order. Some customers waited outside Chick-fil-A restaurants carrying 8-foot crosses or dressed as Superman, according to users on micro-blogging site Twitter.
Former presidential candidate Rick Santorum tweeted about his Chick-fil-A lunch. "OK leftists go crazy," he wrote.
The huge crowds were responding to a call from another former presidential candidate, Mike Huckabee, who had dubbed Aug. 1 as Chick-fil-A Appreciation Day after the chain's president, Dan Cathy, publicly spoke out against same-sex unions two weeks ago.
Cathy's comments, as well as revelations that the chain has donated millions of dollars to anti-gay marriage groups, have sparked a furor from several big-city mayors, actors Mia Farrow and Roseanne Barr, Muppets creator Jim Henson Co. and thousands of consumers who have pledged to boycott the chain.
Rival burger chain Wendy's ordered a North Carolina franchisee to take down signs he had posted at dozens of locations that read "We Stand With Chick-fil-A." In a statement, Wendy's said it is "proud to serve customers of varied races, backgrounds, cultures and sexual orientation, with different beliefs and values."
PHOTOS: Chick-fil-A at center of controversy
On Wednesday, popular West Hollywood bar the Abbey unveiled its new sandwich, the Chick-For-Gay, which it plans to serve to its largely gay and lesbian clientele through the November elections.
Still, more than 600,000 people RSVPed on Facebook for Huckabee's appreciation event. He wrote on the social networking site that he was "incensed at the vitriolic assaults" on the chain, which he described as "a great American story that is being smeared by vicious hate speech and intolerant bigotry from the left."
Huckabee, now a radio show host, posted photos on Facebook of his visit Wednesday to a Chick-fil-A in Destin, Fla.
Not all customers eating at Chick-fil-A sympathize with Cathy's stance against same-sex unions. Many said they were backing the company's right to free speech. Others arrived to voice their displeasure with liberal values in general.
"I'm not against gay rights by any means, but I think this guy is getting a bad rap," Beaumont resident Ed Vatter, 57, said over a plate of chicken nuggets and waffle fries at the Chick-fil-A in Laguna Niguel.
"Plus," he said, "the food's pretty good."
He was one of more than 150 customers who jostled for seats as employees shouted out orders and people waited 30 minutes in lines that stretched out the door at lunch time.
Retirees Susie Kendall, 78, and her husband, Tom, 82, had never been to a Chick-fil-A before, but they swung by to show support for Cathy's beliefs.
"We're afraid America is doing the political thing instead of the right thing," said Susie, a homemaker, of the shift toward gay marriage acceptance. "Political correctness can be done away with as far as I'm concerned."
Outside, a single protester, Laguna Niguel resident Tamara Lindner, 47, wore a shirt with a "No H8" logo and referred to people who patronize Chick-fil-A as "sheep-le."
"This is the silent protest," she said.
Chick-fil-A, a privately held company in Atlanta, refused to comment on the effect of the appreciation day on its sales.
In a statement, it noted that the event "was not created by Chick-fil-A" but said it appreciated "all of our customers and are glad to serve them at any time."
The company, which operates under Christian beliefs that include being closed Sundays, reiterated its "simple" goal of providing "great food, genuine hospitality and ... a positive influence on all who come into contact with Chick-fil-A."
It sent out a similar statement after Cathy was quoted in a small Christian publication, the Baptist Press, that the chain was "guilty as charged" of supporting "the biblical definition of the family unit."
The story quickly went viral. Soon, Cathy went on the Ken Coleman talk show, a syndicated radio program, and reiterated his stance.