Earlier today, the ACLU and the ACLU of Vermont announced a fantastic settlement that we obtained in Baker & Linsley v. Wildflower Inn. We brought the case on behalf of a same-sex couple who were told they could not have their wedding reception at a Vermont resort called Wildflower Inn because of the owner’s personal religious beliefs about marriage. As part of the settlement agreement, Wildflower Inn agreed that Vermont’s public accommodations law prohibits unequal treatment of same-sex couples, which includes turning away same-sex couples seeking to have a wedding reception, failing to respond to inquiries from those couples, or discouraging those couples from using the facilities. The resort also agreed to pay $10,000 to the Vermont Human Rights Commission as a civil penalty and to place $20,000 in a charitable trust to be disbursed by the couple. The plaintiffs, Kate Linsley (nee Baker) and Ming Linsley, will not be retaining any of the money for themselves.
If you have not already heard Kate and Ming’s story, here’s what happened. Kate and Ming wished to hold their wedding ceremony at a Buddhist retreat in Vermont and have their reception at a nearby inn. Ming’s mother, Channie Peters, contacted the Vermont Convention Bureau to locate a facility and received information on the Wildflower Inn. The 24-room inn described itself as an award-winning resort and an ideal destination-wedding location. Baker and Ming were excited about holding the reception there, but when the events manager learned that the reception was for a lesbian couple, Peters was told that due to the innkeepers’ “personal feelings,” the inn does not host “gay receptions.”
It was a shocking and hurtful experience, not only for Kate and Ming, but also for Channie and the rest of their family. Kate and Ming were ultimately able to have their reception at another venue, but the experience cast a cloud over their celebration. Kate and Ming brought this case to make sure that the same experience doesn’t happen to anyone else.
As the case went forward, we discovered that other couples had also been turned away by Wildflower Inn and that many more were discriminated against without even realizing it. It turns out Wildflower Inn had a policy of not responding to initial inquiries or phone calls about wedding receptions if it was clear that the reception would be for a same-sex couple. In other cases, the owners of Wildflower Inn admitted they would discourage same-sex couples from using the facilities by telling those couples that hosting the reception would violate their religious beliefs. As part of the settlement, Wildflower Inn has agreed to change its policies and will not engage in any of these discriminatory practices.
This settlement has important ramifications beyond the actions of a single Vermont resort. In recent years, other couples have experienced similar discriminatory treatment based on the personal beliefs of a business owner. In New Jersey, the owner of a wedding dress shop refused to sell a woman a wedding dress when she learned that she was marrying another woman. In Illinois, a bed and breakfast turned away a couple who asked to have a civil union reception at the facility, and then urged the couple to repent for their sins. In Hawaii, the owners of a hotel refused even to rent a room to a same-sex couple. And in Colorado, a bakery recently refused to sell wedding cakes to gay customers for their marriage celebration. In all of these states, businesses are barred by state law from discriminating against customers based on their race, religion, sexual orientation, or religion, among other protected categories. But the owners of these businesses have claimed that they do not have to follow those laws because of their personal religious beliefs.
Kate and Ming’s settlement with Wildflower Inn sends an important message to business owners that when you decide to enter the commercial sphere and open your doors to the general public, you have to follow the same rules that apply to everyone else and can’t use your own personal religious beliefs to pick and choose who you want to serve. This is not a new idea.
Many people believe that owning a business means that the business owner has the absolute right to serve, or refuse to serve, whomever they like, but that’s simply not true. In fact, our legal system has for hundreds of years treated inns and hotels as public accommodations that have a duty to serve all customers on equal terms. We do not let business owners rely on their religious beliefs to turn away customers based on their race, or to refuse to hire women, or to avoid complying with laws about fair labor standards. When business owners argued that federal civil rights laws violated their religious beliefs by requiring them to stop racially segregating their customers, the courts rightly rejected those claims as frivolous.
We do not let wedding-reception businesses – or any other business – turn away customers because of the couple’s race, or because the reception is for an interfaith couple, or because the husband is divorced, or because the couple uses birth control. The same principles apply when the customer is a same-sex couple. Everyone is entitled to their own religious beliefs, but when you operate a business in the public sphere those beliefs do not give you a right to discriminate.