Nearly two years back I posted about the lesbian couple who sued Vermont's Wildflower Inn for denying their right to rent the grounds for their wedding reception in October, 2010. Kate Baker and Ming Lindsey have resolved their suit with the inn's owners whose refusal violated Vermont's longstanding Fair Housing and Public Accommodations Act.
The couple, with the help of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), has won, although not simply for themselves.
The resort has agreed to pay $10,000 to the Vermont Human Rights Commission (a co-plaintiff in the case). The VHRC will use that sum to defend others whose rights have been violated. The resort further agreed to pay $20,000 to a charitable trust, according to Jess Bidgood in the New York Times, that Ms. Baker and Ms. Lindsey will administer.
Here's my original piece.
The Wildflower Inn, in Vermont's picturesque Northeast Kingdom, advertises itself as the ideal spot for a family vacation or event. However, its owners say they will not, despite Vermont's statute guaranteeing full and open public accommodations, offer its grounds and facilities for one family event, the wedding reception for these two women, Kate Baker and Ming Lindsey.
While you may think the owners of the Inn have the right to deny business on the basis of sexual-orientation, you'd be mistaken. This kind of discrimination is, clear-as-a-bell, a violation of the Vermont Fair Housing and Public Accommodations Act. That law specifically prohibits the discrimination Ms. Baker and Ms. Ming now face.
Inns, while certainly private businesses, may not discriminate as to sexual orientation under Vermont law because they are accommodations open to the public. Whether or not it makes the Inn's owners uncomfortable, the two gay women are members of the general public and may not be discriminated against under some at-best odd notion that they are members of a special, secondary class of customers. The Wildflower Inn's decision isn't only a rank act of bigotry. It is illegal.
When the American Civil Liberties Union sued on the couple's behalf, the Wildflower Inn went so far as to ask the court to declare Vermont's anti-discrimination law unconstitutional. The owners argued that even though they run a business advertising itself as open to the general public, the First Amendment guarantees them the right to deny accommodation to anyone and that they needn't have to explain why even if it's plain as day that the only difference between this couple and others they have served is that they're openly gay. The Inn has no previous history of denying business to customers when it's able to provide the space, when there are no reservation conflicts. The Vermont Human Rights Commission, in fact, has told the court that what Wildflower has done and insists on continuing to do is a "constitutional assault on the underpinnings" Vermont's Public Accommodations Act.
As the ACLU rightly notes, "...we do not allow the owners of hotels, stores, or restaurants to pick and choose which customers they will serve based on personal feelings about the customers. Just because one runs a private business does not mean one has the right to break the law." This principle protects all Americans. I have little doubt that the Wildflower Inn will have, in the end, to obey the law. I am pleased the ACLU has taken this up, for whether or not Ms. Baker and Ms. Ming ever use this inn, there will be a record and decision others may use, if not a legal precedent.
If you're someone who, at this late date in our history, honestly believes private businesses should be permitted to deny service to people based on what makes businesspeople uncomfortable about its potential customers, ask yourself:
Were you ok with that February, 1960 North Carolina Woolworth's lunch counter not serving Coca-Colas to those young black people? Would you be ok with that now?
People who say no and yet have any sympathy for the owners of the Wildflower Inn, must fast explain why discomfort/hate based on sexual orientation confers this really very special right to discriminate under law.