Lesbian couple sues Vermont inn alleging bias
MONTPELIER -- A Vermont inn violated state anti-discrimination rules by refusing to host the wedding reception for two New York City women, the couple said in a lawsuit Tuesday.
The lawsuit, filed by the American Civil Liberties Union's Vermont chapter on behalf of Kate Baker and Ming Linsley, said the Wildflower Inn in Lyndonville turned away the couple last fall and that at least two other same-sex couples were also refused because the inn's owner has a "no-gay-reception policy."
"When the Wildflower Inn told us last fall that they don't host gay receptions, we were obviously saddened and shocked," said Baker. "It was frustrating to be treated like lesser than the rest of the society, and we were also surprised that it happened in Vermont."
Vermont has been a pioneer in gay rights, creating the concept of civil unions for same-sex couple in 2000. In 2009, it legalized gay marriage. Many of its tourism businesses actively market to gay clientele.
The inn's owners, Jim and Mary O'Reilly, issued a statement saying they are devout Catholics who believe in the sanctity of marriage between one man and one woman.
"We have never refused rooms or dining or employment to gays or lesbians," they wrote. "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."
The innkeepers said they never spoke to Baker and Linsley, but that the inn's wedding coordinator "did not handle the couple's request in the manner that it should have been."
Baker, 31, and Linsley, 34, who live in Brooklyn, said at a Statehouse news conference announcing the lawsuit Tuesday that they have since found another location for the reception but that they filed suit on principle.
They say refusing to serve gay and lesbian couples is illegal and wrong.
Channie Peters, Linsley's mother, was making arrangements for the wedding when she contacted the Vermont Convention Bureau in November for help booking a venue for the reception to follow the couple's Buddhist wedding ceremony.
The bureau sent out a request for proposals, and the Wildflower Inn -- whose website advertises "Four Seasons for Everyone!" -- was one of about 10 to respond, saying it would be "the perfect location" for the 120-guest affair.
After Linsley's mother told the inn's meeting and events director that the wedding would have two brides but no groom, the inn sent an e-mail titled: "I have bad news."
"After our conversation, I checked with my Innkeepers and unfortunately due to their personal feelings, they do not host gay receptions at our facility. I am so sorry and want to stress it does not reflect my personal or professional views," it said, according to the suit filed in Caledonia Superior Court in St. Johnsbury.
The lawsuit accuses the inn of violating the state Fair Housing and Public Accommodations Act, which bars public accommodations from denying services to people based on sexual orientation, and asks a judge to bar the Wildflower Inn from excluding gays.
The Wildflower Inn had turned away same-sex business as early as 2005, according to the ACLU.
"It's not a one-time misunderstanding," said Joshua Block, a lawyer for the ACLU's lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender project.
"This is a discrimination case," he said. "It would be no different if you owned a store and said we don't want to sell clothes to you or give you food or any other public accommodation. The fact that it's occurring in a new context shouldn't affect the way we think about it."
Peters said the event would have generated about $35,000 for the host resort. It will be held this fall at another Vermont resort, but the principals wouldn't identify it or say when the wedding is. Coincidentally, the couple lives in New York, where gay marriage will become legal on Sunday.
Under Vermont law, complaints about discrimination based on sexual orientation can be filed with the state Human Rights Commission or litigated in civil court.
Robert Appel, the commission's executive director, said it wasn't the first case of its kind in Vermont, but he said he couldn't discuss the others because of confidentiality rules.
"I'm very happy that someone is coming forward and challenging what appears on its face to be a plainly unlawful policy, having read the complaint," he said. "Sending an e-mail saying ‘We don't serve gay couples' would seem to run directly afoul of the state's public accommodations act."
Vermont's tourism commissioner, who has presided over same-sex wedding as a justice of the peace, said the state strives to promote itself as a destination for LGBT travelers.
"I don't know the details of this case, but I do know that Vermont businesses in the tourism industry welcome LGBT travelers with open arms," said Megan Smith.
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