A panel of the Illinois Human Rights Commission has fined the owner of a downstate bed-and-breakfast inn that refused to host a same-sex civil union ceremony. And the innkeeper's attorney has pledged to appeal the case as far as they can.
Walder Vacuflo, the owner of a Paxton B&B, has been ordered to pay $30,000 for emotional distress to Todd and Mark Wathen. He has also been told to pay $51,218 in attorney fees and costs.
The initial charges of discrimination were brought in March 2011 after the Wathens asked Vacuflo to host their same-sex union celebration at his B&B. The Illinois Human Rights Commission filing states that the Wathens expected to invite 125 guests for the occasion, and some were expected to stay at the B&B for several days celebrating the civil union.
However, when Vacuflo denied their request, Todd Wathen told him it was their legal right to host their ceremony at his business. Vacuflo, however, said he had no intention of ever playing host to such occasions.
“At that juncture, Todd testified that after discussing the email exchanges of February 15, 2011, with Mark, they decided to just drop the matter and let it go," the filing says. "However, according to Todd, things got worse when Walder decided three days after the initial email exchange to send him another email that contained a biblical passage describing his relationship with Mark as ‘vile’ and ‘unseemly.’”
Yet, Vacuflo’s attorney, Jason Craddock, who is associated with the Thomas More Society, said he was not convinced the couple would have let the issue go.
“They also sued another bed and breakfast which didn’t send any religious emails or anything. I have a hard time believing that they would have let it go,” he told the Cook County Record.
According to court documents, the Wathens asked to strike testimony by the defendant that stated he did not intend to harm anyone with his refusal to hold the ceremony at his establishment, but was acting out of reverence for God and the Bible. The complainants said that this was not relevant for the court in determining their emotional damages.
The couple were upset and eventually decided to hold their ceremony in their backyard. The size of their yard restricted them to host only 30 guests, upsetting them again, as it was not the celebration they had planned.
In a press release announcing the decision of the state’s Human Rights Commission, the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois (ACLU) said the B&B was told it could no longer deny gay couples the right to use its facilities.
“The owners of the bed & breakfast were ordered to cease discriminating against same-sex couples by denying them use of the facilities for marriage and civil union ceremonies,” the release said.
However, Craddock argued that public accommodation regulations, while applicable to the rental of rooms, should not apply to services like weddings.
"We argued that no, that shouldn’t be treated as public accommodation because there is a screening process involved,” Craddock said.
Craddock said hosting a wedding was more involved than renting a room, as some clients may be denied because of a lack of space or problems with how they wanted a setup.
“So, there is a screening process at the hotel’s discretion and that, as the case said, takes it out of public accommodation,” Craddock said.
The other issue for Vacuflo was what holding the event could communicate to the public concerning the owner's religious beliefs, the attorney said.
“Doing the wedding is a different story because, there, he is asked to use his premises for something that is kind of a public demonstration for something that goes against his core religious beliefs,” Craddock explained. “Renting a room really doesn’t do that. It doesn’t communicate a message to the public or against his religious beliefs. It doesn’t really communicate any message, whereas allowing this wedding ceremony publicly on your property is communicating a message that is adverse to his sincere faith.”
Craddock said he and his client would make a request for the entire Human Rights Commission to review the panel’s decision.
“Then after that the next step would be going to an appellate court and then the Illinois Supreme Court,” he said. “I believe the U.S. Supreme Court ultimately might be interested in this case if we appeal it there, because we raise issues under the federal Constitution as well as Illinois law.”