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Andersonville Law Firm Secures a Win for IL Gay Couple Denied Facilities For a Civil Union

lgbtAn Andersonville attorney helped an Illinois gay couple win a discrimination case against a bed and breakfast in central-eastern Illinois that denied the couple their right to hold a civil union ceremony because of their sexual orientation.

Betty Tsamis of Tsamis Law Firm PC, whose office is located at 1509 W. Berwyn Ave., represented Todd and Mark Wathen as part of a team of attorneys. She noted that the Illinois Human Rights Commission ruling that was announced on Sept. 17 “builds on an important history of protecting against discrimination in public accommodations. It would have been shameful to reverse this history simply because some business owners object to the legal protections afforded same-sex relationships.”

The IHRC decision has broad implications for how Illinois will protect LGBT persons seeking services from businesses offering their services to the public.

“The issue of whether there is a religious exemption to compliance with the Illinois Human Rights Act public accommodations provisions had not heen decided prior to this case,” Tsamis said. “Now, we have clear legal authority that religious beliefs do not excuse a business from complying with the Illinois Human Rights Act.”

“We are thrilled by this decision,” Todd Wathen said. “It was so hurtful to be turned away in this fashion when planning our civil union ceremony. Our hope is that, as a result of this decision, no other couple will be discriminated against by a facility, florist, baker or other business just because of who they are.”

Gov. Pat Quinn signed legislation to allow civil unions on Jan. 31, 2011, making Illinois the sixth state at the time to allow same-sex couples to enter into civil unions.

Todd and Mark Wathen had been involved in a loving, committed relationship since January 2003 when they decided in early 2011 to begin planning their civil union ceremony. They wanted to have the ceremony on or after June 1, 2011, the effective legal date of civil unions in Illinois.

The Mattoon, Illinois, couple wanted to find a location that would be convenient for their family in Kentucky and Missouri to be able to join them for the ceremony at a central location.

Via email, they contacted Timber Creek Bed and Breakfast in Paxton, Illinois. The central Illinois facility advertised itself as being available for civil weddings and other events. But the couple were rejected because the owners of the facility believed that “homosexuality is immoral and unnatural.” A few days later, Jim Walder, the co-owner of Timber Creek, sent another email to the Wathens lecturing the couple about his religious opinions regarding “the gay lifestyle,” saying, “[i]t’s not to[sic] late to change your behavior.”

“Civil unions and legal marriage are not the same thing, nor do they have the same legal status,” Walder told Todd Wathen in an email. “We will never host same-sex civil unions. We will never host same-sex weddings even if they become legal in Illinois. We believe homosexuality is wrong and unnatural based on what the Bible says about it. If that is discrimination, I guess we unfortunately discriminate.”

When the Wathens filed their complaint with the Illinois Human Rights Commission, the Timber Creek owners defended the discrimination by claiming that their religious liberty would be offended if the facility, which is open to other members of the public, was used to celebrate a same-sex union, a press release said.

“The ruling is critical,” John Knight, director of the LGBT & HIV Project at the ACLU of Illinois, said. “For the first time, the Human Rights Commission has made clear that owners of businesses serving the public in Illinois cannot pick and choose who to serve based on their personal religious views. This state recognizes just how harmful it is to deny couples services because of their sexual orientation and the importance of ensuring that all businesses comply with the Illinois Human Rights Act.”

During debate over the Illinois marriage law, opponents argued for a “carve out” that would permit business owners to deny basic services on the basis of a religious objection. Proponents of the law and, ultimately, a majority of the General Assembly, rejected this proposal, arguing that Illinois must protect its anti-discrimination laws that require business owners open to the public to serve everyone, regardless of gender, age, disability, race, ethnicity and sexual orientation. Today’s decision was hailed by the Wathens’ legal team as supporting that principle.

In the time since the Supreme Court of the United States found the freedom to marry for gay and lesbian couples to be constitutionally protected (extending marriage equality to all 50 states), some have attempted to argue that private companies and even public officials must be allowed to refuse service to gay and lesbian couples seeking to marry. Opponents of this argument have pointed out that allowing such a religious exemption is sanctioning discrimination.

In recent years, as the freedom to marry has expanded across the nation, courts have dealt with refusals by those who provide services to marriages. A Colorado court ruled two years ago that a baker there could not deny service to a gay couple for their wedding. In another case that gathered significant national attention, the New Mexico Supreme Court sided with a same-sex couple after a photographer refused to provide services for a commitment ceremony.

Clay A. Tillack and Tai C. Chaiken of the Chicago office of Schiff Hardin LLP also served as co-counsel in the case, assisting the team after the ACLU joined the case, Tsamis said. Their firms provided valuable assistance with research and brief writing.

Tsamis said she believes the Wathens ended up having their civil union ceremony at their home.

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