Last fall, Kate Baker and Ming Linsley, a lesbian couple from New York, got engaged, setting their sights on a wedding in Vermont. Linsley's mother, Channie Peters, got to work on planning the wedding in October, reaching out to the Vermont Convention Bureau to find an appropriate venue for the couple's reception.
The Wildflower Inn in Lyndonville, VT, one of the businesses who received the Vermont Convention Bureau's message about Baker and Linsley's search for a reception location, contacted Peters a week later. Their inn, a "village-like resort," the employee told Peters, would be "perfect" for the reception.
Over the next few days Peters was in touch with the Wildflower Inn's events manager, who offhandedly noted something about the bride and groom. Peters corrected the events manager - the reception would be hosted by two brides.
Soon after getting off the phone with the events manager, Peters received an email, titled, "I have bad news."
The email read:
"I must apologize for not being able to say this over the phone. After our conversation, I checked in with my innkeepers and unfortunately, due to their personal feelings, they do not host gay receptions at our facility."
The ACLU hosted a teleconference today with reporters and the plaintiffs in the case.
"The facts of the case are really simple and straightforward; it's one of clearest violations of the anti-discrimination statute that I can think of," Josh Block of the ACLU said. "This is a good example of what actually happens when people talk about wanting exemptions from anti-discrimination laws."
The case falls under Vermont's Fair Housing and Public Accommodations Act. Block concedes that two exemptions do exist that would allow the non-discrimination provisions to be passed over. The first provides exemptions for religious institutions, and the other exempts inns, hotels, motels, or other establishments that have five or fewer rooms. The Wildflower Inn, while owned by Catholic owners - Jim and Mary O'Reilly - is not a religious institution and has 24 rooms.
"This is a private, for-profit business," Block said. "This does not involve any member of the clergy - it is a for-profit business. And that's a very important line that can get blurred when people talk about religious exemptions. When you take it upon yourself to open up a public business, you are making a commitment to making your business open to the public."
Not an Isolated Incident
While the lawsuit only concerns the dispute that Baker and Linsley had with the Wildflower Inn, the owners' discrimination against LGBT people is not new. The events manager, who Peters said was not communicating her personal prejudice in refusing service to Linsley and Baker, but rather the policy of the inn's owners, told the ACLU that she informed LGBT people in two additional instances that the Inn could not host their event, at the request of the Inn's owners. The events manager no longer works for the Wildflower Inn, but the ACLU affirms that the anti-LGBT policy existed before her term of employment there.
The Wildflower Inn is a small family owned and operated country inn. We are a devout practicing Catholic family who believes in the sanctity of marriage between one man and one woman. We have never refused rooms or dining or employment to gays or lesbians. Many of our guests have been same-sex couples. We welcome and treat all people with respect and dignity. We do not, however, feel that we can offer our personal services wholeheartedly to celebrate the marriage between same-sex couples because it goes against everything that we as Catholics believe in.
As for the lawsuit, we have never spoken to or had any communication with this couple and were not aware of this lawsuit before we read it on the news this morning.
Unfortunately, our Wedding Coordinator did not handle the couple's request in the manner that it should have been.
The Danger of 'Religious Exemptions'
Baker and Linsley have found a different location in Vermont to host their reception for this fall. But they are continuing to pursue the lawsuit because they feel it is an important story that demonstrates that businesses cannot discriminate based on sexual orientation.
Baker said: "We felt like speaking up about this was really crucial so that the inn understands that they can't force this policy of theirs, but also so that the rest of our society and people of various backgrounds, including, obviously, LGBT people, understand that we are protected."
"This is not about my daughter's wedding," Peters reiterated. "This is about discrimination and about breaking the law."
The Wildflower Inn case speaks more broadly to the potential problems with offering exemptions to compliance with human rights policies and non-discrimination laws.
Block explained that these broader exemptions are dangerous.
"So far, the religious exemptions have been confined to religious institutions," he said. "But I think opponents want to extend them to individual people who aren't affiliated with the religious institutions. If we're quiet and we don't affirmatively make it a case that this discrimination is wrong, then people aren't necessarily going to view it as wrong."