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Kate Baker Linsley (left) and Ming-Lein Linsley.
On August 23, 2012, a settlement was reached in the lawsuit filed by Kate Baker Linsley and Ming-Lein Linsley, a lesbian couple from New York who sued a Vermont inn that turned them away when they attempted to book it for their destination wedding. The Wildflower Inn in Lydonville, Vermont acknowledged that it broke the law and agreed to pay $30,000 in fines and damages.
The case developed in October 2010 when Ming Linsley's mother, Channie Peters, took the lead in helping the couple find a venue for their wedding reception. The couple planned to hold their wedding at a Buddhist retreat in Vermont and wanted to host a reception at an inn nearby.
Ms. Peters contacted the Vermont Convention Bureau and gave them information about the proposed reception. On October 29, she received information from a representative of one of the VCB's members, the Wildflower Inn, who said that it would be the "perfect location" for the reception.
On November 5, Ms. Peters spoke by telephone with an employee of the resort to discuss details about the reception. During the conversation, the Wildflower Inn representative made a reference to "the bride and groom," and Peters clarified that the reception would involve two brides.
Within minutes of ending the telephone conversation, Ms. Peters received an email from the Wildflower Inn employee telling her, in part, "After our conversation, I checked in with my Innkeepers and unfortunately due to their personal feelings, they do not host gay receptions at our facility."
The couple was ultimately able to find another venue for their reception, but they found the experience hurtful and shocking. To make certain that other gay and lesbian couples do not have to go through the same kind of rejection they did, the Linsleys decided to sue.
In July 2011, the couple, represented by the ACLU of Vermont, filed suit against the Wildflower Inn, accusing the resort of violating the Vermont Human Rights Law, which prohibits public accommodations from discriminating on the basis of sexual orientation.
As the case went forward, the ACLU's attorneys discovered that other couples had also been turned away by Wildflower Inn and that many more were discriminated against without even realizing it.
The resort had a policy of not responding to initial inquiries or phone calls about wedding receptions if it was clear that the reception would be for a same-sex couple. In other cases, the owners discouraged same-sex couples from using the facilities by telling those couples that hosting the reception would violate their religious beliefs.
In October 2011, the Vermont Human Rights Commission also joined the lawsuit against the Wildflower Inn.
In the settlement announced on August 23, 2012, the Wildflower Inn, noting that it had violated the law, agreed to change its policies and not engage in discriminatory practices in the future, while the plaintiffs acknowledged that the owners of the Inn had acted in good faith, based upon their understanding of a 2005 Vermont Human Rights Commission decision.
The owners of the Wildflower Inn also agreed to pay $20,000 to the Linsleys and $10,000 to the Vermont Human Rights Commission.
The Linsleys' expressed satisfaction with the settlement. Some of the $20,000 they will receive will go towards the legal costs the couple incurred over the past year, but the 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 Linsley told Taylor Dobbs of the Vt.Digger.org blog. The Trevor project is a national organization that supports glbtq youth, particularly through anti-suicide efforts.
Dan Barrett, an attorney for ACLU-Vermont, also hailed the settlement, and commented particularly on the Wildflower Inn's practice of discouraging gay and lesbian couples by saying that it would violate their religious principles to host their weddings: "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.
On the ACLU website, Joshua Block of the LGBT Project observed that, "Many people believe that owning a business means that the business owner has the absolute right to serve, or refuse to serve, whomever they like, but that's simply not true. In fact, our legal system has for hundreds of years treated inns and hotels as public accommodations that have a duty to serve all customers on equal terms."
"We do not let business owners rely on their religious beliefs to turn away customers based on their race, or to refuse to hire women, or to avoid complying with laws about fair labor standards," Block continued, adding: "We do not let wedding-reception businesses--or any other business--turn away customers because of the couple's race, or because the reception is for an interfaith couple, or because the husband is divorced, or because the couple uses birth control. The same principles apply when the customer is a same-sex couple. Everyone is entitled to their own religious beliefs, but when you operate a business in the public sphere those beliefs do not give you a right to discriminate."
Not surprisingly, the Alliance Defense Fund, which represented the Wildflower Inn, issued a statement decrying the settlement and painting the owners of the inn as victims: "Every American should be free to live and do business consistent with their deeply held beliefs," said Byron Babione. "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. Legal attacks like this one are not pursuits for justice, but attempts to coerce and police private expression."
But as Kate Linsley pointed out in an interview, "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."
The video below, produced by the ACLU, explains the issues in Baker and Linsley v. Wildflower Inn.