URBANA — Mark Garrett drove 50 miles Wednesday just to eat at a Chick-fil-A, and it wasn't because of the food.
Free speech, not fried chicken patties, was on Garrett's mind as he joined other customers who lined up at the Illini Union's food court and Chick-fil-A outlets nationwide to support the chain.
Company President Dan Cathy took a public stance against gay marriage last month, prompting boycotts by gay-rights groups and efforts by city officials in Boston and Chicago to block the chain from opening restaurants in their cities.
"This is a matter of free speech. The man has a right to his opinion," said Garrett, who lives in Bloomington. "Boston and Chicago have no right to ban commerce based on free speech."
Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, a Baptist minister, declared Wednesday "Chick-fil-A Appreciation Day," urging supporters to eat at the restaurant. His Facebook page showed almost 640,000 people planning to take part.
Opponents of Cathy's stance have planned "Kiss Mor Chiks" for Friday, asking people of the same sex to show up at Chick-fil-A locations and kiss each other.
Locally, Mark Burns, president and general manager of Fisher-based "Great News Radio" stations, promoted Huckabee's idea on his Wednesday morning broadcast, promising to buy a drink for any listener who showed up at the Illini Union Chick-fil-A on Wednesday. He ended up shelling out $95.
Burns said the line at one point snaked through the food court and into the hallway. As of 3 p.m., the restaurant had served 250 people, double the normal clientele for a summer day, officials said.
Some were there on First Amendment grounds.
"I don't care one way or the other who marries who. But nobody's gonna tell me I can or can't go to a place because of a man's personal opinion," said Johnie Hall of Champaign, who stood in line with his wife, Brenda Hall.
Others, including Garrett, said they also support "traditional marriage."
Cathy told the Baptist Press last month that the Atlanta-based company was "guilty as charged" for backing "the biblical definition of a family."
Gail Crowder of Oakwood, who brought her Bible-study group, said she doesn't believe in gay marriage, adding, "We all have sins, and their sin is no worse than mine."
Some came for the chicken.
"We're just here to eat," Kenisha Walker, standing in line with fellow UI senior Whitney White. She at first thought the restaurant was giving away free food.
There were no counter-protests, but an online petition launched earlier this year asks the university to remove Chick-fil-A from the Illini Union. It had gathered 758 signatures as of Wednesday.
The petition accuses Chick-fil-A of "homophobic policies."
"The U of I cannot fulfill its goals of creating a safe and respectful environment for its student body while allowing such a business to operate on university grounds," the petition says.
"We would no more tolerate a racist, sexist, ageist, anti-Islamic, anti-Christian or any other discriminatory business operating on university property than we will a confirmed and proud anti-LGBT business," it says.
Kyle Zak, president of the student group PRIDE, which advocates for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights on campus, said the issue isn't free speech.
"We're in no way saying that the owner of Chick-fil-A or anybody on their board of directors ... doesn't have the ability to express their views, whatever they may be," he said.
But any business that profits from students and the university has an obligation to uphold university values, he said.
"The public face of Chick-fil-A as espoused by their president embodies hate and bigotry. Those are not university values," Zak said.
A rival Facebook page called "Keep Chick-fil-A-at-UIUC" urged people to attend Wednesday.
Robert Michael Doyle, a longtime gay activist in Champaign, said he disagrees with Chick-fil-A's views, calling civil marriage a civil right. But he also thinks government shouldn't use its power to ban businesses.
"It's very important for us as gay people, as a persecuted minority, to hold fast to all those constitutional rights for everybody," Doyle said in a phone interview. "It's just as wrong to say we're going to keep (out) a gay church, a gay bar, a gay-owned business."
It would be different if the company refused to serve people based on their sexual orientation or violated laws against employment discrimination, said former Champaign County Board member Matthew Gladney, who is gay.
"The people that run the company hold a particular set of beliefs. If folks don't agree with it — which is fine, I don't agree with it — just don't eat there," he said. "Don't give them your business. That's hitting them where it hurts."
Gladney said he found it ironic that Boston's mayor asserted that Chick-fil-A had no place on the Freedom Trail.
"Freedom is all about the fact that we're not all going to agree on everything," he said.