NEK Inn Settles Discrimination Lawsuit

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An inn in the Northeast Kingdom will pay a $10,000 fine and place $20,000 in a charitable trust to settle a discrimination lawsuit brought by a lesbian couple from New York.

When Kate Baker and Ming Linsley got engaged in October of 2010, they wanted a Buddhist ceremony and a secular reception in Vermont. So Linsley’s mother, Channie Peters, started calling around to find an inn for the reception. She says an employee at the Wildflower Inn in Lyndonville was enthusiastic on the phone but then sent an email stating that the innkeepers, quote, "due to their personal feelings…do not host gay receptions at our facility."

"I felt terrible," Peters recalls. "I mean, this is my only child. She had finally gotten engaged. She was going to get married. And the very first place that I called tells me that she’s not good enough?"

Peters poses that question on a video made by the American Civil Liberties Union, which lodged a legal complaint on the couples’ behalf. 

The Vermont Human Rights Commission intervened in the case. The commission alleged that there was an illegal pattern of prejudice at the inn.  

But the innkeepers, Jim and Mary O’Reilly, still deny that. They blame an employee no longer on staff for improperly communicating their policy, which was to accept gay wedding reception business, but with the caveat that it conflicted with their religious beliefs.

Their attorney, Jim Campbell, works for an Arizona-based religious advocacy group called Alliance Defending Freedom, and he still sees the lawsuit as an attack on their constitutional rights.

"Every American should be free to live and do business consistent with their deeply held religious beliefs," Campbell says. "And legal attacks like this one are not pursuits for justice but attempts to coerce and police a private business’s expressions."

But Campbell also says the innkeepers were eager to move on with their business and lives, without violating state law.  

Under the agreement, Wildflower Inn will agree to host no weddings or receptions. They must also pay the civil fine of $10,000 to the Vermont Human Rights Commission and place another $20,000 in a charitable trust to be dispersed by the couple.  

For Ming Linsley, that sends a satisfying message to other business owners, that discrimination by businesses will be punished, at least in Vermont.

"Happiness isn’t quite the right word," she said shortly after the settlement was announced on Thursday afternoon. "But I [take] satisfaction in the outcome as well as a sense of relief that we had come to the end of a long journey."

And Kate Linsley, who took Ming’s last name, says the offer the O’Reillys finally put on the table took some of the sting out of virulent anti-gay rhetoric that still flies around the Internet.

The couple does have one other reason to celebrate. Ming is pregnant with their first child.

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