E.R. SHIPP Rev. Al becomes a defender of friers

No matter how chickens die, they are going to end up between his teeth and those of so many people who listen to Al Sharpton's new civil rights campaign for the precooked lifestyle of chickens -- "the gospel bird," as one of my preacher friends designates this menu staple.
Sharpton has joined with People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals to demand that KFC give chickens more space to live in, no growth hormones and a drug-aided unconsciousness before the final slaughter.
One pal of mine, Dawn, fell out of bed laughing when she heard about Al's latest crusade. "Stop the bull and order me a 10-piece," said another friend, John the Baptist.
It seems Sharpton is casting about for an identity. He's already tried acting turns on TV shows like "My Wife and Kids" and "Boston Legal" and hosted "Saturday Night Live." This from a man who once took to serious talk shows as a voice for moral values from a black, left-of-center perspective.
Poverty, Social Security, the Iraq war, AIDS in Africa and failing schools in New York City apparently aren't challenging enough. The reverend has taken on chickens -- not, mind you, opposing their place on the dinner table or in the fast-food takeout container, but their treatment before they get there.
His calling
"I'm calling on people to boycott KFC until they adopt animal welfare systems recommended by PETA and until they stop the worst abuses of the birds," says the Rev in a new video and Internet ad campaign. He adds: "PETA wants KFC to stop thinking they know more than God and to allow birds to grow the way chickens are meant to grow."
He's winning raves among some in the animal-rights movement. "Any decent person wants to eliminate any suffering," says Dan Mathews, a spokesman for PETA who met Al at an MTV party in Miami.
Black political movements such as the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People are in flux, and black churches all around New York are looking for leadership. But Sharpton is marching for chickens' rights.
While Al pursues the rubber-chicken circuit politically and the baked, smothered and fried chicken circuit otherwise, let's look at the real question: Reverend, is this merely another clever shakedown of the corporate America that keeps you fine, fit and fiddling while Rome burns?
X E.R. Shipp is a columnist for the New York Daily News. She won the Pulitzer Prize for commentary in 1996. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.