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An Illinois bed and breakfast discriminated against a same-sex couple when its owners rejected the pair’s request to hold their civil union ceremony in 2011, according to a ruling this week from the Illinois Human Rights Commission.
In 2011, after Illinois approved civil unions for same-sex couples, Todd and Mark Wathen approached the Timber Creek Bed and Breakfast in Paxton, Ill., to ask about the possibility of holding their civil union ceremony there. Even though Timber Creek advertised its facilities as available for civil weddings and other similar events, the Wathens were rejected due to the owner’s belief that “homosexuality is immoral and unnatural.” A few days later, the owner sent a second email to the Wathens lecturing them about his religious beliefs concerning the “gay lifestyle” and telling them they could change their behavior.
The Wathens then filed a complaint with the Human Rights Commission, whereupon Walder Vacuflo, Inc., which owns Timber Creek, defended itself, claiming that the Wathens never directly asked if they could hold their civil union ceremony there, but merely made a general inquiry into the bed and breakfast’s policy with regard to civil union ceremonies. Walder Vacuflo also claimed that Timber Creek should not be considered a place of public accommodation, and that hosting the ceremony would violate their religious liberty.
The Human Rights Commission, in investigating the case, eventually ruled that Walder Vacuflo and Timber Creek had discriminated against the Wathens based on their sexual orientation, thereby violating Illinois’ nondiscrimination law, also known as the Illinois Human Rights Act. Both parties will take place in a conference call with the Human Rights Commission to determine the extent of damages, as well as the Wathens’ legal fees, that Walder Vacuflo will have to pay.
“We are thrilled by this decision,” Todd Wathen said in response to the commission’s findings. “It was so hurtful to be turned away in this fashion when planning our civil union ceremony. Our hope is that as a result of this decision, no other couple will be discriminated against by a facility, florist, baker or other business just because of who they are.”
Since the legalization of marriage equality nationwide following the Supreme Court’s ruling earlier this summer, many opponents of same-sex marriage have argued that businesses should be provided religious exemptions that would allow them to deny service to LGBT people in general, and same-sex couples, in particular. Prior to Illinois’ passage of its own law legalizing marriage equality, opponents offered an amendment that would create such an exemption, which was rejected by a majority of the state’s General Assembly.
“For the first time, the Human Rights Commission has made clear that owners of businesses serving the public in Illinois cannot pick and choose who to serve based on their personal religious views,” said John Knight, the director of the LGBT and HIV Project at the ACLU of Illinois. “This state recognizes just how harmful it is to deny couples services because of their sexual orientation and the importance of ensuring that all businesses comply with the Illinois Human Rights Act.”
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