Published: Saturday, Apr. 17th, 2021
by Jessica Levey 04/17/21
Two wedding venues made headlines this week for refusing to provide services to same-sex couples. Private wedding venues in North Carolina and Ohio turned couples away, saying that business owners and staff have a right not to host these weddings due to their religious objections to same-sex marriage, claiming first amendment protections and the right to free exercise of their religion.
In Miami County, Ohio, Reagan Bowen and Deandra Fair approached a venue about an August wedding. They received a response which read, “I am sorry Reagan, because of our Christian beliefs we do not believe in same-sex marriages at the venue. I wanted to respond back to you and be upfront with you.” (via WHIO-TV news)
And in Fuquay-Varina, North Carolina, McCae Henderson and Ike Edwards were also turned away for being gay. The venue issued an explanation and apology, which the couple posted to social media, stating that, “our owner has chosen not to participate in same-sex weddings at this time.” The venue later defended its position by saying that “the company holds strong to it's (sic) beliefs as followers of Christ.” (via WRAL news)
These decisions have caused a lot of understandable upset and backlash, with many across the country wondering how this type of discrimination is possible, and whether or not it’s legal to turn couples away for being a part of the LGBTQ+ community.
We find these recent cases of discrimination deeply upsetting. In an effort to understand and clarify what’s happening, here’s a brief look at where the law stands, why this issue is so complex, and what might be changing.
Currently, federal courts have not ruled definitively whether or not the owner of a private business can refuse services (because of religious objections) to members of the LGBTQ+ community, although some states offer strong local protections for their LGBTQ+ populations.
The Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex or national origin in many settings. It doesn’t explicitly include references to sexual orientation or gender identity, however this may be changing (see our comments on The Equality Act below).
One of the most high-profile cases involving a private business and LGBTQ+ discrimination in recent years brought a small cakeshop and the Colorado Civil Rights Commission in front of the Supreme Court. This appears relevant to the recent wedding venue decisions:
In 2012, Masterpiece Cakeshop’s owner, Jack Phillips, refused to make a wedding cake for a gay couple because of his religious opposition to same-sex marriage.
The couple filed a charge against Phillips with the Colorado Civil Rights Commission, claiming that Phillips violated the Colorado Anti-Discrimination Act, which prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation in a businesses engaged in any sales to the public, and any place offering services to the public. The Commission ruled in the couple’s favor, leading Phillips to appeal to the higher court that his right to free exercise of religion had been violated.
After lengthy review, in 2018, the Supreme Court ruled narrowly in Phillips' favor, holding that the Commission had not adequately considered his religious rights. What made Phillip’s case unique, the Court wrote, was that the service he provided, designing and creating a cake, was artistic in nature, and could be considered a form of personal expression. (Phillips is now being sued again, for refusing to make a birthday cake for a transgender woman.)
But the broader question, of whether private businesses can legally refuse service based on a customer’s sexual orientation or gender identity, and where the line should be drawn between protections of an individual’s basic civil rights, and protections of an individual’s free exercise of religion, hasn’t been fully decided at a federal level.
This means that for now, wedding venues and other businesses that refuse to host or serve same-sex couples might be within their rights. But they might not be.
An ACLU message created in the weeks leading up to the
Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission Supreme Court case.
In 2021, the Bostock v. Clayton County case decided that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act prohibits employment discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity, as a type of sex discrimination. President Biden made an executive order that the ruling be applied to other areas, including education, housing, and health care.
There’s more: A piece of pending legislation called The Equality Act would expand The Civil Rights Act of 1964, along with other civil rights provisions, to explicitly include sexual orientation and gender identity as protected qualities. The Equality Act passed the U.S. House in February, 2021, and is currently being decided in the Senate.
What makes this most relevant to engaged couples, wedding professionals, and venues (and any other private business serving the public), is that it would also update the existing laws and protections affecting public places and services.
If passed and signed into law, the bill would definitely impact everyone involved -- devoutly religious individuals, private businesses, and LGBTQ+ individuals and their families -- although it would take time to see in what specific ways, and where.
The issue is complicated, but AMM’s vote is, as always, with marriage equality.
We firmly believe that all couples -- regardless of race, sexual orientation, ability, class, or other defining qualities – deserve the same rights to marriage and its benefits. This means unrestrained access to all of the services and resources that make marriage possible, like marriage licenses, caring and compassionate wedding officiants, and venues. All couples should be able to plan their wedding celebrations without fear of experiencing embarrassment or discrimination.
We also respect the deeply held beliefs of members of all faiths and religious organizations, and their right to practice those beliefs, to the extent that they don’t inflict harm on others.
But as we well know, denying anyone the benefits of marriage (and thus, security) can and does cause harm.
Any line between an individual’s right to exercise their religion and another individual’s right to intrinsic civil liberties must be drawn carefully -- while paying close attention to the level of access that LGBTQ+ couples have to all the benefits of society.
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