Todd Wathen and his partner of eight years were planning their civil union for later this yearfor what would be their most joyous day together.
But now it's looking like the most shocking.
They were denied access to the special-events services of two Illinois bed-and-breakfasts that advertise publicly for such services. And the two men, from East Central, Ill., have filed complaints with the Illinois Attorney General and the Illinois Department of Human Rights, alleging violations of the Illinois Human Rights Act which prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation by businesses open to the public.
The Illinois civil-union law does not take effect until June 1, so "it's not yet clear if this conduct would have been a violation of the new law [the Illinois Religious Freedom Protection and Civil Union Act], but it is a violation of already existing law," said Chicago-based attorney Betty Tsamis, of Tsamis Law Firm, P.C., which is representing Wathen and his partner. "In Illinois, it is unlawful for a business open to the public to deny goods and/or services to someone on the basis of sexual orientation."
Wathen said they are seeking a personal apology "and want to be treated with dignity and respect."
Wathen added, "Not only do we ask this for ourselves, but we ask this for every gay and lesbian person in Illinois. We want these businesses to be held to the standard of the law. I mean what will be next, if we let them discriminate against us. Are these businesses going to go backwards and start discriminating [based on a person's] race, color, sex, national origin, or what if they don't like your religion, [will they] discriminate because of that?"
Wathen and his partner are challenging the actions of The Beall Mansion in Alton, and TimberCreek Bed and Breakfast in Paxton.
One inn owner e-mailed Wathen and wrote that, even if it was the law, his business would never host gay weddings or civil unions. Several days later, the inn owner sent another e-mail to Wathen citing various Biblical verses, "detailing how the Creator of the Universe looks at the gay lifestyle" and denouncing gay people, Wathen said.
"We are shocked that these bed and breakfast business owners think that they are above the law," Wathen said. "[The] innkeeper[s] blatantly rejected and refused to abide by the laws of the State of Illinois."
Wathen, 44, said the couple now would not ever go to either of the two inns, based on the way they have been treated.
"We want other gay people to be aware of this class-based discrimination and we want to encourage members of the LGBT community to come forward if other businesses discriminate against them," Wathen said. "There still [are] going to be struggles out there for the LGBT community. We are getting closer all the time, but we are still going to have business owners out there [who] are going to try to discriminate against us, and we have to stand up, show them that we will not take it, that they to have to abide by the laws of the state of Illinois."
Tsamis added, "We make strides every day, but we still have a way to go in securing full legal equality for LGBT people. In the meantime, we tell our opponents this: We will hold you fully accountable under the law whenever you discriminate against us."
Wathen said he was, "shocked, then angry, and [then] hurt" that these businesses would treat a customer this way, particularly sending Bible-related e-mails. "They have to follow the law of the state, and if they can't do that, then they are in the wrong profession.
"I want everyone to know that I do believe in God, and I also pray to God. But I was born this way, and I don't believe that God makes mistakes. And when I want to be a paying customer at a business, I should be able to use all their services and not have to pick and choose, because of who we are, and [also not] have the owner's religious views come in between that."
Jim Belote, co-owner of The Beall Mansion, said Feb. 21 that he was not aware of the lawsuit. He added that his inn "does not discriminate based on sexual orientation, but we're not doing civil unions for gay or straight couples, among other things we don't do. We also don't do wedding rehearsal dinners, for gay or straight couples." Belote said he has "a lot of gay people" stay at his inn on a regular basis.
Jim and Bether Walder, innkeepers at Timber Creek Bed & Breakfast, were not available for comment as of press time.