Vermont Resort to Pay Fine and Revise Policies to Settle Discrimination Lawsuit by Lesbian Couple
MONTPELIER, Vt. – A Vermont resort that was sued last year for refusing to host a lesbian couple’s wedding reception and violating Vermont’s Fair Housing and Public Accommodations Act finalized an agreement to resolve the lawsuit today. As part of the settlement, the resort will pay $10,000 to the Vermont Human Rights Commission as a civil penalty and will place $20,000 in a charitable trust to be disbursed by the couple.
Kate Linsley (nee Baker) and Ming Linsley of New York contacted the American Civil Liberties Union and the ACLU of Vermont after Ming’s mother was told by the Wildflower Inn’s events manager that due to the innkeepers’ “personal feelings,” the inn did not host “gay receptions.” After the plaintiffs filed suit, the Vermont Human Rights Commission also intervened as a co-plaintiff in the proceedings.
“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.”
The couple planned to hold their wedding ceremony at a Buddhist retreat in northern Vermont and wanted to have the reception at a nearby inn. The 24-room inn described itself as an award-winning resort and an ideal destination-wedding location. On its website, the inn described itself as “Four Seasons for Everyone,” and said that even the family dog was welcome.
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.”
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, though the Wildflower Inn fit neither category.
“It may seem strange to us today, but when federal civil rights laws were passed in the 1960s, some business owners argued that laws requiring racial desegregation violated their religious beliefs,” said Joshua Block, staff attorney for the ACLU Lesbian Gay Bisexual and Transgender Project. “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. This settlement reaffirms that businesses operating in the commercial sphere cannot use religion as a license to 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.
As part of the settlement agreement, however, the Wildflower Inn 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.
“Here in Vermont, we have a long history of being inclusive and welcoming to all people,” said Robert Appel, executive director of the Vermont Human Rights Commission. “This settlement makes clear that when you operate a public business in Vermont, you can’t discriminate.”
More information on this case, including a video of the plaintiffs, can be seen here: http://www.aclu.org/lgbt-rights/lesbian-couple-sues-vermonts-wildflower-inn-discrimination
More information on the ACLU’s work challenging individuals and institutions using religion as an excuse for discrimination can be found here: www.aclu.org/using-religion-discriminate
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASEAugust 23, 2012
CONTACT:Robyn Shepherd, ACLU national, (212) 519-7829 or 549-2666; email@example.comAllen Gilbert, ACLU of Vermont, (802) 223-6304 x115; firstname.lastname@example.orgRobert Appel, Vermont Human Rights Commission, (802) 828-2482