The American Civil Liberties Union and the ACLU of Vermont filed a lawsuit July 19 against a Vermont resort that refused to host a lesbian wedding reception, allegedly due to the owners’ anti-gay bias.
The plaintiffs in Baker and Linsley v. Wildflower Inn, New York couple Kate Baker and Ming Linsley, planned to have their wedding ceremony at a Buddhist retreat in Vermont and the following reception at a nearby resort. Linsley’s mother, Channie Peters, asked the Vermont Convention Bureau for recommendations and the bureau sent her request to its membership. The Wildflower Inn in Lyndonville, an award-winning family resort, responded to Peters’ inquiry on October 29, 2010 and described itself as the “perfect location” for Baker and Linsley’s reception.
The Wildflower Inn’s Web site advertises “four seasons for everyone” along with outdoor recreation, children’s activities and spa services. Innkeepers Jim and Mary O’Reilly have owned and operated the inn since 1985, and several of their eight children work at the rural facility.
Peters called the inn on November 5 and spoke to an event manager about the reception details. During the conversation, the representative referred to the “bride and groom.” Peters clarified that the wedding was between two brides. Within a few minutes of hanging up the phone, Peters received an email from the hotel employee informing her that the inn was rescinding its invitation. “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 email read in part.
Vermont’s Fair Housing and Public Accommodations Act prohibits any public accommodations— including inns, restaurants, stores and other businesses that serve the general public—from denying goods and services based on customers’ sexual orientation. The act contains exceptions for religious organizations and inns with fewer than five rooms. The Wildflower Inn offers 24 rooms.
“The law is clear that any business that provides a service to the public can’t pick and choose who they want to serve based on the customer’s race, gender, sexual orientation, or gender identity,” said Joshua Block, staff attorney for the ACLU Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Project. “If we allow one group of people to be singled out and denied basic rights and service, we are violating the basic American values of justice and fairness for everyone.”
The O’Reillys responded through their attorney on August 22, claiming that the inn did not have a policy of discriminating against same sex couples. If a same-sex couple called the inn about hosting their reception, the event director was to “inform the Owners of the Inn, who would then speak with the couple,” which they say she failed to do. The owners also asserted that applying the Fair Housing and Public Accommodations Act in this situation unlawfully violates the owners’ First Amendment rights to free exercise, free speech and expressive association. Presumably, the owners are seeking to build their case upon the argument that the legal expression of their religion—the O’Reillys are devout Catholics—supersedes their responsibility to the public accommodations law.
“The Wildflower Inn owners do not deny that they refused to host Kate and Ming’s wedding reception. Instead, they continue to claim a right to discriminate against the couple, which is in violation of Vermont law,” said Allen Gilbert, executive director of the ACLU of Vermont. “We are confident that the owners’ claim that they have a First Amendment right to discriminate will be found meritless by the courts.”
PATTERN OF DISCRIMINATION?
A review posted on the travel advice Web site TripAdvisor.com hints that the alleged problem had occurred before.
Though the majority of the inn’s reviews on TripAdvisor are positive, one user stayed at the inn in September 2010 and posted a negative review. “We went for a romantic weekend getaway. The location is breathtaking and the rooms were fine…However, the service at the Wildflower Inn was just awful. The staff were cold and unfriendly to us and seemed homophobic,” claimed the user, a woman traveling with her female partner.
Jim O’Reilly, the innkeeper, personally responded to the review 10 days later. “We have a number of friends that are homosexual, we have many guests that are homosexual and we’ve employed homosexuals. So that statement is totally untrue. I have never seen any of our staff treat any guest differently because of their sexual preference,” he wrote. “I do want to make a point in saying that we do treat all guests the same.”
The Wildflower Inn’s Web site claims it “no longer hosting weddings or special events” and refers couples to a nearby resort and spa, owned by Mary O’Reilly’s parents.