Agency finds evidence of discrimination

PAXTON — The Illinois Department of Human Rights has found “substantial evidence” that a bed-and-breakfast near Paxton has violated the civil rights of a homosexual Mattoon couple who were denied the opportunity to hold their civil union ceremony there.

Meanwhile, an attorney representing the owners of the TimberCreek Bed-and-Breakfast west of Paxton said Monday that his clients have done “nothing wrong.”

In February, Todd and Mark Wathen filed a civil-rights complaint against two bed-and-breakfasts in Illinois — the TimberCreek Bed-and-Breakfast and the Beall Mansion in Alton — for refusing to host a civil union ceremony between the two men.

The Wathens had hoped to schedule the ceremony for June, once a law allowing same-sex civil unions in Illinois went into effect. But both businesses — which advertise themselves as sites for weddings and other special events — refused.

The co-owner of the Timber Creek B&B, Jim Walder, also wrote an e-mail to Wathen citing various biblical verses and denouncing homosexuality as “wrong and unnatural,” adding that “we will never host same-sex weddings even if they become legal in Illinois.”

“If that is discrimination, I guess we unfortunately discriminate,” Walder wrote in correspondence provided to the Paxton Record by Todd Wathen.

The Wathens’ complaint alleges violations of the Illinois Human Rights Act, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation by businesses open to the public.

The Illinois Department of Human Rights concluded this month that “there is substantial evidence that a civil rights violation has been committed,” according to a letter from its director, Rocco Claps, provided by the Wathens’ attorney, Betty Tsamis of Chicago.

The finding is not a final decision but is a procedural step that recommends the case be resolved by a “trier of fact,” said Tsamis.

“It’s a step in the right direction, and the decision really signifies that the process works,” Tsamis said Friday.

Tsamis said the finding means the Wathens could now ask for conciliation or for a hearing before the Illinois Human Rights Commission or a state circuit court. Tsamis said she plans to discuss the options with her clients before making a decision on how to proceed.

If a judge or the commission rules in the Wathens’ favor, an injunction could be sought to force the bed-and-breakfasts to comply with the law, Tsamis said.

“My clients could also be entitled to damages, for emotional distress, attorney fees and punitive damages possibly,” Tsamis said.

Jim Walder, co-owner of the TimberCreek B&B, has said that for religious reasons, his business will not host any civil union ceremonies, regardless of whether the ceremony is for an opposite-sex or same-sex couple. The TimberCreek’s website says it is a Christian bed-and-breakfast.

On Monday, Walder deferred all comment on the Illinois Department of Human Rights’ findings to his attorney, Steve Amjad of Champaign.

Amjad said in an email that TimberCreek’s policies “do not discriminate based on sexual orientation,” noting that the business does not host civil unions for same-sex or opposite-sex couples.

“The truth is Timbercreek has done nothing wrong, and their right to freely exercise their faith should not be threatened by the government or anyone else,” Amjad said. “Basically, no business owner should be forced to violate his sincerely held religious beliefs merely because someone demands it. I think most people in Illinois would agree that Constitutional and state laws should and do guarantee religious freedom, even to business owners with strong religious convictions.

“It is unfortunate that these preliminary findings ignored that fundamental right and the merits of the legal defenses people of faith have in these situations.”

Meanwhile, Tsamis said, “everybody’s entitled to their individual religious convictions — I believe that — but a business is also required to follow the law.”

Tsamis said the “public accommodations” section of the Illinois Human Rights Act makes this clear.

“These are businesses, open to the public, advertising openly on the Internet, and yet despite that, they want to then fall back on their religious convictions and get a free pass from the law, which just isn’t right,” Tsamis said. 

Tsamis said the two B&Bs are considered open to the public because both advertise publicly for their services on the Internet.

Todd Wathen said Friday that he and his partner are “elated” about their case moving forward and “thankful that the IDHR is willing to enforce the laws of the state of Illinois to protect us and the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) people.”

The Wathens were wed in their back yard on June 4. Todd Wathen said they did not actively pursue other accommodations after being turned down by the two inns.

“We feel a lot better,” said Todd Wathen, 44. “It’s just something we’ve been waiting for for a long time. We have been together for over eight years, and to be able to do this, it was great.”

The Beall Mansion in Alton is now hosting civil union ceremonies, according to its co-owner Jim Belote.

Meanwhile, the TimberCreek B&B is not, according to a notice on its website.

Comments

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