The Wildflower Inn’s Aug. 22 answer to the complaint claims the First Amendment protects its decision.
The ACLU of Vermont filed the suit on behalf of Katherine Baker and Ming-Lien Linsley in Vermont’s Superior Court on July 19.
Baker and Linsley of Brooklyn, N.Y., sued the inn and its limited partner owner DOR Associates LLP for refusing to host the reception. The chain of events began in October 2010, when Linsley’s mother, Channie Peters, asked the Vermont Convention Bureau for help in finding a wedding reception site. The bureau issued a request for proposals and the inn’s meeting and events director, Amalia Harris, contacted Peters.
During a telephone conversation with Harris in November, Peters clarified that the reception would involve two brides.
The lawsuit claimed that about five minutes after the call ended, Peters received an e-mail from Harris with the subject line, “I have bad news.” She wrote that she had checked with the innkeepers and “unfortunately due to their personal feelings, they do not host gay receptions at our facility.”
The complaint claimed the defendant violated Vermont’s Fair Housing and Public Accommodations Act, which has barred public accommodations from refusing to provide goods and services because of patrons’ sexual orientation since 1992. The law’s narrow exceptions are for hotels with five or fewer rooms and religious organizations.
The plaintiffs asked the court to declare that the defendant had violated the state law and issue an injunction barring it from enforcing its no-gay reception policy. They also asked for nominal damages of $1 plus costs and attorneys fees.
In court documents, the inn denied that it had a policy of refusing to host receptions for same-sex couples’ civil unions or weddings or that it had previously received complaints. The inn also claimed that Harris never told the owners of the plaintiffs’ request. Moreover, the inn acknowledged that the state law would bar denial of “goods and services” based on factors including sexual orientation.
However, the inn also argued that applying the Vermont statute in this situation, wherein the defendant would be forced to host “expressive events,” would violate the owners’ rights to the free exercise of their religion, freedom from compelled speech or expression and freedom of expressive association under Vermont’s Constitution and the First Amendment.
Jim O’Reilly, one of Wildflower Inn’s owners, said he did not want to discuss the litigation while it’s active, “but we hope that it is resolved quickly and fairly.” The inn’s attorney, Norman Smith, a solo practitioner in Essex Junction, Vt., declined to comment.
The ACLU insisted it has a strong argument. “It’s a very straightforward case, because there’s something in writing from the defendant refusing to serve our clients,” said ACLU of Vermont staff attorney Dan Barrett. “The only defense offered by the inn is that they think the First Amendment allows it to sidestep Vermont’s law — and we don’t think that has any merit.”
He added: “This has been on the books for about 20 years — way before we had equal unions in Vermont. This a pretty cut-and-dried case.”
“The ACLU plans to pursue this litigation vigorously,” said ACLU of Vermont executive director Allen Gilbert. “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,” Gilbert said.