July 20, 2011 -- The Wildflower Inn in Lyndonville, Vt., bills itself as a "vacation sanctuary" where the welcome mat is rolled out even for the family dog. The inn, nestled in the mountains on 570 acres, was voted Best Family Resort by Yankee Magazine in 2010 and has enjoyed positive reviews in travel publications and websites that range from National Geographic Traveler to Trip Advisor.
But according to a lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union, that warm Wildflower welcome doesn't extend to gay couples.
Court documents filed in Vermont Superior Court claim that when Katherine Baker and Ming-Lien Linsley, a lesbian couple, tried to book their wedding reception at the Wildflower, they were told via email that innkeepers Mary and Jim O'Reilly "do not host gay receptions" because of their "personal feelings."
According to Dan Barrett, an attorney with the Vermont Chapter of the ACLU, that puts the O'Reillys in violation of the law. "We believe this is a straightforward violation. Businesses open to the general public must serve all customers. ... They cannot turn people away based on sexual orientation. That section of the law has been on the books in Vermont since 1992."
Linsley, 34, and Baker, 31, became engaged last October. The two wanted to hold their wedding in Vermont because, said Linsley, "we both have come here for years, and we had a strong connection to it personally."
Mother-of-the-bride Channie Peters set about trying to find a place to hold a wedding reception. With help from the Vermont Convention Bureau, Peters received an email from the meetings and events director of the Wildflower Inn that read in part "the Wildflower Inn would be the perfect location ..." and continued "You could not offer a better "destination wedding" location for your guests." But when Peters mentioned there would be a "bride and bride" instead of a "bride and groom," she received an email with the subject line: "I have bad news," and that's when the O'Reilly's alleged policy against holding gay receptions at their inn came to light.
Linsley and Baker, who both live and work in New York City, said they wanted to proceed with the lawsuit because up until last October, they said they hadn't experienced much discrimination as a same-sex couple. "People before us have stood up and spoken out" to fight for their rights, said Linsley. And Linsley and Baker wanted to do the same. "It is hurtful to see that we are less welcome than the family dog," said Linsley.
Calls to the O'Reilly's home in Vermont were not returned. And a woman who answered the phone at the Wildflower Inn said she could not comment on the lawsuit. The inn updated its website today to say it is "no longer hosting weddings or special events."
The lawsuit's allegations are particularly jarring, given that Vermont is known as one of the most liberal states in the country. The Green Mountain State has allowed civil unions between same sex couples since 2000, and gay marriage has been legal since 2009. Tourism is one of Vermont's main industries, and gay-marriage related business has been brisk.
The O'Reillys have 20 days to file a response to the allegations. The ACLU's Barrett believes he has a solid case. "We understand this to be a policy of the owners. We understand that this has happened to other potential customers," he said, adding that his clients are asking for a declaratory judgment, which means they want the court to declare that what happened to them was illegal.
Despite their experience at the Wildflower Inn, the couple did find a place to host their wedding reception, and the ceremony will take place this fall. "We are thrilled," said Linsley.