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Story highlights

In wake of Chick-fil-A COO's comment, Americans choose sides and politicize eating habits

Others prefer to avoid controversy or quietly agonize over whether to patronize chain

Many say views are secondary to the right to express them, even within LGBT community

(CNN) —  

Call it a crisis of faith.

A co-worker and I walked into the office break room Wednesday, national Chick-fil-A Appreciation Day, to find a dozen or so foil-wrapped sandwiches beckoning us from the counter. This being Atlanta, home of Chick-fil-A, we recognized them immediately, and a closer look at the puck-sized packages bearing the iconic scribbled red logo confirmed our suspicions – and deepened our paranoia.

“Is this a trick?” my co-worker asked as he stood frozen in front of the counter. “Will someone judge me if they see me eating one?”

We had no idea where they had come from and still don’t, but our break room is often the dumping ground of leftovers from business meetings where food is served. I also froze in silence because I knew that the answer was yes, some would judge him, at least for the time being, while the company’s stance on same-sex marriage is in the spotlight, sparking impassioned op-eds and fiery debate on cable news networks and Facebook Walls across the country. Supporters on both sides of the debate have staged demonstrations, starting with Wednesday’s appreciation day and Friday’s same-sex “kiss day” at Chick-fil-A restaurants across the country.

Are you going to “kiss day” at Chick-fil-A? Share your story with CNN iReport

Ever since Truett Cathy opened the first Chick-fil-A Restaurant at a mall in suburban Atlanta in 1967, the company has made no secret of its dedication to Christian values. Its corporate purpose is to “glorify God by being a faithful steward of all that is entrusted to us” and “to have a positive influence on all who come in contact with Chick-fil-A.” All of its locations are closed on Sunday.

Chick-fil-A controversy shines light on company’s charitable giving

Within this context, many Americans – including residents of Atlanta, the ninth “gayest” American city in 2012, according The Advocate magazine – have chosen either to enjoy Chick-fil-A’s sandwich variations or to not patronize the restaurant because of its values. Or, you might be like one of my gay friends, who would ask others to stand in line for his Chick-fil-A lunch, lest his boyfriend find out.

But for many, COO Dan Cathy’s recent comment that he supports the “biblical definition of the family unit” has forced their hands, compelling them to publicly choose a side and politicize their eating habits.

Chick-fil-A Appreciation Day was proposed by former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee in an effort to show support for the company’s viewpoint. Those who chose to support Chick-fil-A on Wednesday led to record-breaking sales, the company said, though it did not provide specific sales numbers.

“Chick-fil-A Appreciation Day was not a company promotion; it was initiated by others,” said Steve Robinson, executive vice president for marketing, in a statement Thursday. “The Chick-fil-A culture and service tradition in our restaurants is to treat every person with honor, dignity and respect, regardless of their belief, race, creed, sexual orientation or gender.”

Time will tell whether Chick-fil-A suffers any actual fallout from the controversy or if it’s just another “media-driven controversy,” as some have suggested. After all, Ben & Jerry’s is still going strong despite coming out in support of same-sex marriage with flavors like Apple-y Ever After and Chubby Hubby. Californians still swear by In-N-Out Burger regardless of whether their burger comes with a large drink and a citation from a Bible passage.

In the meantime, both sides have fanned the flames with high-profile demonstrations and heated rhetoric. Others are left somewhere in the middle, still craving an original chicken sandwich but reluctant to subject themselves to the scrutiny of friends and colleagues, like my co-worker.

Heather Roberts of Sugar Land, Texas, made a point of patronizing at Chick-fil-A on Wednesday while visiting Atlanta for a conference.

“We wanted to eat here today, especially to show support not just for Christian values but for his right to express his beliefs,” Roberts said shortly after finishing a chicken sandwich and waffle fries from a Chick-fil-A stand in the CNN Center food court.

She said she shared Cathy’s position on same-sex marriage, acknowledging that if the controversy centered around his support for it, she wouldn’t have participated in appreciation day. Normally, though, she eats at her local Chick-fil-A at least once a week because she appreciates the food and the customer service – not because of its Christian values.

“I’m allowed to eat where I want,” she said. “We need to be appreciative that we live in a country where we can say what we want and eat where we want.”

Even some people who oppose Cathy’s views didn’t feel the need to boycott the restaurant, especially if those views don’t lead to discrimination against customers or employees.

“I don’t agree with the owners’ beliefs, but they publicly state that they will serve all who enter the door,” CNN commenter Doug Barger said.

“I believe in religious freedom,” the Greenwood, Ohio, resident wrote in an e-mail. “Because the owner’s personal opinions differ from mine points to a healthy society.”

For many, Cathy’s views are secondary to his right express them, even among members of the LGBT community.

“Mr. Cathy has been unfairly attacked for his statement that he doesn’t support same-sex marriage,” said Matt Zieminski, a 20-year-old iReporter from California.

“As a gay man, I say, let him not support gays. When the gay community and gay activist groups push on anti-gay people and organizations to change their minds and opinions via bullying or forced involvement, I fear it would make whatever accomplishments taste cheap like a greasy coin. Ultimately, the acceptance of the gay community and the right of gays to marry will not be achieved through violent means, physical and verbal, but through peaceful and honest negotiations.”

How the Chick-fil-A same-sex marriage controversy has evolved

Predictably, Cathy’s stance on same-sex marriage kept others away Wednesday.

“I think the (COO) has made eating at Chick-fil-A a political statement. I wouldn’t (have) had a problem eating there before, but now that the restaurant has turned into a campaign to bash the rights of the LGBT community, I realize I can put my money somewhere else,” CNN commenter Wade Pierson said. “As a born-again gay Christian, it saddens me to see Christians feeding into politics. Politics just divides people and stirs up a lot of anger.”

As counterprotests in the form of “kiss-ins” take shape Friday, some would just as soon stay away from Chick-fil-A this week to avoid making the act of eating chicken political.

“Both sides have very good points, but both sides are also wrong, and they’re both making this into something far bigger than it needs to be,” said an Atlanta-based CNN commenter who preferred not to be named. “Both sides just quite honestly need to grow up and stop acting like 2-year-olds just because somebody said something they didn’t like.”

The Atlanta resident says she does not plan to boycott the chain altogether because she agrees with both sides. And she likes the food.

Plus, if you start boycotting Chick-fil-A because you disagree with the COO’s views, how far will you take your principles?

“I’m very impressed with people that try to avoid right-wing companies from profiting off of them. Trying to avoid Koch products would be really hard. I mean, they even make asphalt!” a friend said in response to my Facebook question, “are you conflicted over buying Chick-fil-A?”

“It’s not a political issue for me. I think it’s more of a way for people to define themselves in front of their friends,” she said. “It reminds me a lot of KONY, people getting riled up over something as a way to define themselves.”

As for my co-worker, he quickly gobbled down his sandwich in the break room while we speculated over where they might have come from. He finished it before others entered the room, tsking as they pulled out their smartphones to take pictures.

Two hours later, the rest of the sandwiches were gone.

Complete coverage: Chick-fil-A debate

CNN’s Nicole Saidi contributed to this report.