A Vermont inn will pay a fine of $10,000 and will place $20,000 in a charitable trust as part of a settlement in a lawsuit brought by a lesbian couple who were told the inn wouldn't host their wedding reception because they were gay.
The Wildflower Inn in Lyndonville also agreed that Vermont law prohibits unequal treatment of same-sex couples, including a failure to respond to inquiries from those couples or discouraging those couples from using the facilities.
Ming Linsley and Kate Linsley (nee Baker) of New York contacted the American Civil Liberties Union and the ACLU of Vermont after Ming’s mother was told last year by the Wildflower Inn’s events manager that due to the innkeepers’ “personal feelings,” the inn did not host “gay receptions.” The ACLU filed suit on the plaintiffs’ behalf. The Vermont Human Rights Commission later intervened as a co-plaintiff in the proceedings.
The Vermont Fair Housing and Public Accommodations Act explicitly prohibits any public accommodations from denying goods and services based on customers’ sexual orientation. The law applies to inns, restaurants, schools, stores, and any other business that serves the general public. The act contains exceptions for religious organizations and small inns with five or fewer rooms, although the Wildflower Inn fit neither category.
“We’re glad that the Wildflower Inn has recognized that the way we were treated was wrong and that no other family will have to experience what we did,” said Ming. “Although we found a different location and had a beautiful day, all families should feel welcome at any resort that’s open to the public.”
Kate and Ming will not keep any of the $20,000 placed in the charitable trust. Most of the trust will be donated to nonprofit organizations, with the remainder used to pay for some of the costs incurred in bringing the lawsuit.
“We did not bring this lawsuit in order to punish the Wildflower Inn or to collect money,” said Kate. “We brought this lawsuit because we wanted people to know that what the Wildflower Inn did was illegal. We didn’t want to stay quiet and allow businesses to continue to think they can discriminate.”
As part of the settlement, the Wildflower Inn agreed to no longer host wedding receptions. The inn argued in court that the meetings and events manager misapplied the resort’s policies in turning away Kate and Ming. The resort stated that instead of turning away same-sex couples who seek to hold a wedding reception, their actual policy was to not respond to phone calls or e-mails about wedding receptions for same-sex couples or to have a conversation in which the owners explained to the couple that hosting a wedding reception for a same-sex couple conflicted with their religious beliefs.
“People are entitled to their own personal religious beliefs, but when you choose to open up a public business you don’t have a right to pick and choose which customers you want to serve,” said Joshua Block, staff attorney for the ACLU Lesbian Gay Bisexual and Transgender Project. “This settlement reaffirms that businesses operating in the commercial sphere cannot use religion as a license to discriminate.”