LYNDONVILLE, Vt. A Vermont bed and breakfast has settled a lawsuit brought by the state's Human Rights Commission and two women who wanted to have a same-sex wedding reception on the inn's property.
The Wildflower Inn in Lyndonville agreed to pay $10,000 to the Vermont Human Rights Commission as a civil penalty for violating Vermont's Fair Housing and Public Accommodations Act as well as $20,000 in a charitable trust to be controlled by the couple, the Burlington Free Press reported Aug. 23.
"The Wildflower Inn has always served and will continue to serve everyone in our community. But no one can force us to abandon our deeply held beliefs about marriage," owner Jim O'Reilly, a Catholic, said in a statement. "Our beliefs haven't changed, but we do have lives to live, a family to love, a business to grow, and a community to serve.
"Small businesses like ours cannot match the limitless resources of the government and the [American Civil Liberties Union]," O'Reilly said. "Ongoing litigation like this can cripple any small business and the livelihood of its owners, so we're relieved to put this ordeal behind us."
The story dates back to 2005 when two other women asked Wildflower to host their civil union ceremony and O'Reilly said he would be willing to host the ceremony in compliance with state law but disclosed his belief that marriage is the union of one man and one woman.
Those two women filed a complaint with the Vermont Human Rights Commission, which investigated Wildflower and determined that O'Reilly acted lawfully. Wildflower continued to respond to inquiries about same-sex ceremonies and receptions in a similar manner, according to the Alliance Defending Freedom, which represented Wildflower in the recent case.
In 2010 after same-sex marriage had become legal in Vermont Wildflower hired a local wedding coordinator to handle events on the property and briefed the coordinator on the 2005 commission finding that approved Wildflower's practices. She was instructed to refer all inquiries about hosting same-sex ceremonies or receptions to O'Reilly so that he could ensure the proper procedure was followed, ADF said.
That fall, Wildflower's event coordinator responded to an email inquiry "from the mother of a woman involved in a same-sex relationship by flatly rejecting their request to host a reception at Wildflower," ADF said. The employee offered the couple services through her own wedding planning business and instructed them to call her at home that evening, ADF said.
Despite the employee's claim that she discussed the inquiry with O'Reilly and his wife Mary, she in fact did not consult with either of them, ADF said. At her deposition, the employee admitted she was not telling the truth when she told the inquiring individual that she discussed the matter with the owners.
In the spring of 2011, the Wildflower event coordinator received a call from the ACLU about denying the same-sex couple use of the property for their reception, and she admitted to the O'Reillys that she may have created trouble for them by turning away the same-sex couple, ADF said. The coordinator subsequently resigned from her position, and Wildflower stopped hosting events.
About three months later, the ACLU sued Wildflower on behalf of the same-sex couple based on the employee's 2010 email, though the couple had never interacted with the inn's owners. Later the Vermont Human Rights Commission joined the case, and the O'Reillys attempted to reach a settlement "that would preserve their rights and freedoms while acknowledging responsibility for the former employee's misstatement of Wildflower policy," ADF said.
After months of legal wrangling, Wildflower agreed to a settlement affirming that the inn "acted in good faith with a justifiable belief that it was in compliance with the law," ADF said.
Kate Linsley, one of the women in the lawsuit, said in an ACLU news release after the settlement, "We did not bring this lawsuit in order to punish the Wildflower Inn or to collect money. 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."
Byron Babione, senior counsel for ADF, said, "Every American should be free to live and do business consistent with their deeply held beliefs. 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."
The settlement stated that the O'Reillys discussed the case with the two women, Ming and Kate Linsley. "They know each other to be people of good will, and wish each other the best. Each party regrets the harm and loss that the other has suffered," the settlement said.
Wildflower, named "New England's Best Family Resort" by Yankee Magazine, agreed to refrain from hosting weddings or wedding receptions in the future.