A lesbian couple who sued a Vermont inn last year after they were turned away because of their sexual orientation won a settlement today.
The Wildflower Inn in Lyndonville acknowledged it had broken the law and agreed to pay $30,000 in fines and damages.
Kate Baker and Ming-Lein Linsley were outraged when they found out Linsley’s mother, who was organizing the reception for the New York couple’s destination wedding in Vermont, was turned away by the Wildflower Inn in Lyndonville.
Together with the Vermont Chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, the couple filed suit against the inn last July. In October, the Vermont Human Rights Commission joined in the lawsuit. The commission is the state body responsible for enforcing human rights laws.
Today, the parties settled the dispute, closing an unpleasant chapter for both the inn and the couple.
According to the settlement, the Wildflower Inn was acting in good faith and in compliance with a 2005 decision by the Vermont Human Rights Commission that said that while no public establishment may refuse to serve a customer based on sexual orientation, the inn could advise potential customers of the owners’ Catholic beliefs.
Based on that decision, the Wildflower Inn’s stated policy was to ignore all calls and emails from same-sex couples hoping to host a wedding or reception at the inn. If confronted, their policy was to advise the couple that the owners did not believe in same-sex marriage, but would host the reception if they really wanted to.
“My understanding is that their policy was if a gay couple called or emailed that they just wouldn’t return their calls or their emails, or if for instance someone showed up … then they would have a conversation and say ‘this goes against our religious beliefs and we can’t put our hearts into it and we don’t support it,’” Kate Linsley (she changed her name when the couple married) said in an interview.
Dan Barrett, an attorney for ACLU-Vermont, said the settlement asserted that the 2005 decision was no longer valid.
“What this settlement makes clear is that you can’t discourage and get away with it. Discouragement or any unequal treatment of LGBT customers is [legally] the same as an outright refusal,” he said.
The Alliance Defending Freedom, an Arizona-based advocacy group working for religious freedom and ideals, represented the inn in the case.
In a statement from the alliance, senior counsel Byron Babione said the inn was under attack for its owners’ religion.
“It is unfortunate when a state agency teams up with the ACLU to harass and punish a private family business over its owners’ constitutionally protected thoughts and beliefs,” he said. “Legal attacks like this one are not pursuits for justice, but attempts to coerce and police private expression.”
But the couple, now happily married in Brooklyn and preparing to celebrate their wedding anniversary on Sept. 17, said the case wasn’t about personal beliefs.
“This case really isn’t about allowing or not allowing people to have their personal beliefs, it’s really about this is a place that’s supposed to accommodate the public,” Kate Linsley said in an interview.
Under the Fair Housing and Accommodations Act, public inns in Vermont with more than five beds and no stated religious affiliation are not allowed to discriminate based sexual orientation.
The Linsleys say they’re happy with the outcome.
The Wildflower Inn must now pay a civil penalty of $10,000 to the Vermont Human Rights Commission and establish a $20,000 charitable trust for the Linsleys. Some of the money will go towards the legal costs the couple incurred over the past year while the vast majority will go to charities of their choosing.
“We’re definitely going to give probably the largest chunk of it to the Trevor Project,” Kate said. The Trevor project is a national organization with the goal of supporting Lesbian, Gay, Bi-sexual, Transgendered and Questioning (LGBTQ) youth and preventing suicide among that group.
When the couple filed the lawsuit, Ming said she grew up in a supportive community and had – up until last year – never faced serious discrimination based on her sexual orientation. The couple knows others don’t fare so well.