A gay Illinois couple seeking a facility to host their civil union ceremony were denied by not one, but two facilities based on their sexual orientation, according to new complaints filed with the state of Illinois Human Rights Commission.
Todd and Mark Wathen of Mattoon were seeking a location for their civil union ceremony that would permit friends and family from Kentucky and Missouri to attend the ceremony and spend the night. An Internet search identified two possibilities – the Beall Mansion Bed and Breakfast of Alton and the Timber Creek Bed and Breakfast of Paxton – that offered their facilities for weddings. But when the Wathens contacted both facilities, they were rebuffed and, in one instance, subjected to a Biblical lecture on homosexuality, according to a statement from the Illinois American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), which now represents the couple.
The Illinois Human Rights Act, which includes protections based on sexual orientation, does not permit a business that is open to the public to deny services on a discriminatory basis. Illinois law requires that businesses offering their service to the public provide those services in a fair and equitable fashion.
“Planning our civil union ceremony was a moment of great joy for us,” said Todd Wathen, one of those complaining to the Human Rights Commission today. “We were thrilled that Illinois provided legal recognition to our relationship. It hurt to face this blatant discrimination just as the State was making such progress in treating lesbian and gay couples fairly.”
Within hours of Gov. Pat Quinn (D) signing the Illinois civil union law, Todd and Mark Wathen began planning their ceremony for the summer of 2011. The law state civil unions law took effect in June. The couple knew that they wanted to have the ceremony in a small, intimate place — rather than a large hotel facility — and they wanted a location that was convenient for family members from Kentucky and Missouri to reach by car, according to an ACLU statement.
Todd emailed the Beall Mansion and asked if they would be available for civil union ceremonies beginning in June. After receiving no response, Todd phoned the owner to follow up. The owner of the facility responded that Beall Mansion would only be hosting “traditional marriages,” which were described as being “between a man and a woman.”
Although they were troubled, the Wathens persevered. They reached out to Timber Creek in Paxton seeking a date for their civil union ceremony. The owners of the Timber Creek responded that they would never host a same-sex ceremony, and cited the Bible to argue that same sex relationships were “wrong and unnatural.” The Timber Creek owner also told the Wathens that the “Bible trumps Illinois law,” the ACLU statement says.
The Wathens stopped communicating with Timber Creek, but three days later the owners sent another email with more Biblical quotes that condemned and criticized same sex relationships. The persistent message – even after the Wathens had stopped communicating – was unnecessary and hurtful to the couple, they say.
“We knew that these facilities were breaking the law by discriminating against us,” says Mark Wathen. “But to keep pushing at us by continuing to send us messages about their religious beliefs made it personal and hurtful.”
This case is important to ensure that the state’s public accommodations law reflects fairness and equality and that the law is followed by all businesses, according to the attorneys representing the couple.
“Illinois has made great strides in protecting against discrimination in public accommodations – discrimination based on race, religion, gender and age,” says ACLU attorney John Knight. “We cannot turn back on that progress by creating an exception that perpetuates discrimination by business owners against lesbian and gay male couples entering into civil unions.”
Scott Nance is the editor and publisher of the news site The Washington Current. He has covered Congress and the federal government for more than a decade.