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A sign is seen before Republican presidential candidate and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich visits a Chick-fil-A in Anderson, South Carolina in this file photo taken January 21, 2012.

ERIC THAYER/REUTERS

Same-sex marriage: the issue is serious and divisive. But after two weeks of increasingly wild charges and counter charges, eating one brand of chicken sandwich has been dubbed a hate crime and kissing your same-sex partner in public is a new form of political protest.

It's the Chick-fil-A furor.

On Friday, gay and lesbian couples will kiss inside and in front of Chick-fil-A restaurants across America in an angry act of protest.

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Not to be outdone, hundreds of thousands of people urged on by former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and other conservative leaders declared Wednesday "Chick-fil-A Appreciation Day." Long lines of devotees filled the more than 1,600 already popular restaurants in 39 states. Some billed their support as backing for the restaurant's position on same-sex marriage, others said it was a free speech issue.

All across America big city mayors, small town preachers and gay activists are shooting off about the latest – and perhaps – silliest summer brouhaha. It was set off two weeks ago when Dan Cathy, president of Chick-fil-A – a privately held, family-owned, $4-billion business – voiced his view that God was against same-sex marriage.

Well, not exactly. But close.

Here's what he said: "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,'" adding: "I pray God's mercy on our generation that has such a prideful, arrogant attitude to think that we would have the audacity to try to redefine what marriage is all about."

Mr. Cathy unleashed a firestorm.

He's been accused of being hateful and bigoted. Mayors in Chicago, Boston and San Francisco declared Chick-fil-A unwelcome in their towns. President Barack Obama's close friend and former chief-of-staff, Rahm Emanuel, denounced Mr. Cathy and said his restaurants had no place in the Windy City.

"Chick-fil-A's values are not Chicago values," said Mr. Emanuel.

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"They're not respectful of our residents, our neighbours and our family members. And if you're gonna be part of the Chicago community, you should reflect Chicago values."

Mr. Emanuel didn't specify Chicago's values, although the city's reputation has – perhaps unfairly – has long been intertwined with gangsters, corruption, and political shenanigans.

Not to be outdone, Washington DC's mayor Vincent Gray said Chick-fil-A was hawking "hate chicken."

Mr. Gray, under investigation for election irregularities, said he would try and block further Chick-fil-A outlets in the nation's capital. So far, there is only one – on the grounds of Catholic University.

Others who recall Washington's racist past denounced the denouncers. "It is a disgrace," said William Owens, head of the Coalition of African American Pastors, at a Washington DC news conference. "Some people are saying that because of the position that Chick-fil-A is taking, they don't want them in their cities. It is the same thing that happened when I was marching for civil rights, when they didn't want a black to come into their restaurant."

Some politicians came to Chick-fil-A's defence. Sarah Palin tweeted a picture of herself with a box of the boneless chicken. And she defended Mr. Cathy, noting that Mr. Obama had hedged on his own support of gay marriage until recently. "The owner of the Chick-fil-A business had merely voiced his personal opinion about supporting traditional definition of marriage, one boy, one girl, falling in love, getting married," Ms. Palin said. "And having voiced support for … that cornerstone of all civilization and all religions since the beginning of time, he (is) getting crucified."

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Not quite, but some of the attacks are pretty vicious.

Gay activists accuse Mr. Cathy and Chick-fil-A of being anti-gay, not just against same-sex marriage. "It's bigotry and hatred, plain and simple," said Steve Siebold, author of Sex, Politics and Religion: How Delusional Thinking is Destroying America.

America remains deeply split over the issue of same-sex marriage. A Pew poll released Tuesday found 48 per cent of respondents supported it, 44 opposed. As with many issues, there's a huge partisan divide with 70 per cent of Republicans opposed to same-sex marriage and 65 per cent of Democrats in favour.

Growing support among Democrats (only 40-per cent backed it in 2004) may have prompted Mr. Obama's long-anticipated public endorsement of same-sex marriage, which didn't come until this spring. "President Obama and Joe Biden, they both supported the exact same thing (civil unions but not marriage) until just a few months ago, when Obama had to flip-flop to shore up the homosexual voter base," Mr. Palin noted acidly.

Nor has the furor been limited to just talk.

Amazon's chief executive officer Jeff Bezos gave $2.5-million to Washington United for Marriage, in support of the same-sex marriage campaign as direct response to the Chick-fil-A controversy.

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Undismayed, Mr. Cathy, was making no apologies.

"We are very much supportive of the family – the biblical definition of the family unit," he said. "We are a family-owned business, a family-led business, and we are married to our first wives."

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