Residents crowded Chick-fil-A restaurants in South Jersey Wednesday, turning a gay-marriage controversy into a busy lunch hour.

In Egg Harbor Township and in Vineland, patrons came out to support the company president’s conservative Christian beliefs, others were there to protest his stance against gay marriage. Many just came to get a chicken sandwich.

“I want to see more people stand up for their beliefs,” said Florence Schoonober, 72, of Egg Harbor Township. “It’s about time Christians stood up and be counted.” Chick-fil-A is no stranger to large crowds: When the Egg Harbor Township location opened in 2011, more than 100 camped out overnight.

Chick-Fil-A has been at the center of a national controversy ever since the chain’s President Dan Cathy told The Baptist Press that he opposes same-sex marriage and supports the “biblical definition” of family. The chain has long been known for its overtly religious creed — branches close on Sundays so employees can go to church and the corporation proclaims its purpose is "to glorify God” — yet the fallout was swift.

Boston Mayor Thomas Menino Philadelphia City Councilman James Kenney and Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel spoke out against Cathy’s views. Menino publicly asked Cathy to scrap plans for a Boston location; and Emanuel and a city alderman said they were working to block a Chicago location.

This prompted Mike Huckabee, a conservative television host and former Arkansas governor, to dub Wednesday “Chick-Fil-A Appreciation Day.” More than 650,000 Facebook users said they would attend, and by Wednesday night Huckabee had posted photos of packed restaurants across the country — in Florida, Ohio, West Virginia, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Minnesota, Alabama, Louisiana, Indiana and Texas.

Lamar Shafer, 58, and his family drove from Monroeville in Salem County to the Vineland restaurant to show their support.

“I frequent this Chick-fil-A because they’re a Christian organization,” said Shafer, as he ate a chicken wrap on the Vineland restaurant’s patio with his wife, Sharon, and their daughter, Amanda, 14.

But some Chick-fil-A patrons said they do not oppose same-sex marriage but support Cathy’s First Amendment right to free speech.

“I believe in tolerance,” said Michael VanAllen, 40, of Galloway. “It’s not about hate. There’s no hate being expressed.”

Protesters were also in attendance. Members of the Presbyterian Church of Pleasantville were outside of the Egg Harbor Township location for a couple of hours holding signs, such as one that read “God Loves Gays.”

Vineland resident Dana Rosado, 13, organized a pro-gay protest at the Vineland site through Facebook.

She said people were supportive, bringing food from the nearby Taco Bell and Arby’s fast food restaurants. Nearby, Gabrielle Cianfrani, 36, of Folsom, watched her daughter Julia Clancy, 13, protest. Cianfrani said she never expected to have to monitor a protest, but said “I think it’s great. They’re awesome kids.”

Proponents of same-sex marriage were also asking people to donate the approximate cost of a Chick-fil-A meal, about $6.50, to gay and lesbian rights groups, according to the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation. GLAAD is also backing a “National Same-Sex Kiss Day” at Chick-fil-A restaurants Friday. Nearly 10,000 had signed up by Wednesday night.

One local Chick-fil-A was quiet Wednesday because it is closed for the summer. The new Campus Center at Richard Stockton College has several chain restaurants in the new food-court, but Student Senate president Alex “A.J.” Vervoort of Eatontown, Monmouth County, said concerns about the company’s views have come up.

“I think it is against Stockton’s support for diversity,” he said.

Vervoort said students can use meal plan money to eat at Chick-fil-A and that the Student Senate would take the issue up in the fall. If there is sufficient student support, they will ask the college to consider breaking the contract.

Stockton’s contract is not directly with Chick-fil-A. The college’s nonprofit subsidiary Stockton Affiliated Services Inc. manages the contract with Chartwells, the college’s food service provider, and Chartwells contracts with the franchises. Stockton spokesman Tim Kelly said they are researching the situation.

Chartwells provided a statement stating they have “clear and strong policies that embrace diversity, inclusion and respect in the workplace. We have zero tolerance for any behavior that is contrary to these values.”

But those workplace policies may not apply to the president’s personal views. Chartwells also provided a statement from Chick-fil-A: “Going forward, our intent is to leave policy debate over same-sex marriage to the government and political arena,” its says.

Even some who support gay marriage admit some ambivalence about boycotting the restaurant.

Eddie Horan, of Old Bridge, Middlesex County, a Stockton student senator and member of the Pride Alliance said they talked about picketing or a boycott. He said he remembers last fall thinking about whether he should eat there.

“I knew the company donates to anti-gay causes, “ he said. “But I really wanted a chicken sandwich. Finally, I decided to stop eating there and now I wouldn’t eat it if it were free.”

Carlos Vallejo, 21, of Pleasantville, said he had no idea of the significance of eating at Chick-fil-A on Wednesday. Vallejo, who is gay, said he was upset at what Cathy said, but didn’t hold it against the local chain.

“It’s really good chicken,” Vallejo said. “I don’t feel bad, but I should. … I should be willing to quit Chick-fil-A but I’m sorry, I can’t.”

Contact Diane D’Amico:

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Contact Derek Harper:

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