CHICAGO – An administrative law judge with the Illinois Human Rights Commission ordered a Paxton bed and breakfast that denied access to a downstate couple looking to celebrate their civil union ceremony in 2011 to stop discriminating by turning away same-sex couples from its facilities for civil unions or marriages and to pay damages to the couple who brought the case. The judge had earlier ruled that Todd and Mark Wathen were denied use of the facilities was based on their sexual orientation in violation of Illinois law. This week’s ruling comes after a hearing on damages held in Springfield in November 2015.
Following the hearing, attorneys for the Wathens filed briefs to support the Wathens’ request for an order to stop discriminating and pay damages, attorneys’ fees and costs. The lawyers for the bed & breakfast failed to respond in a timely matter, leading up to the judge’s ruling.
The judge ordered the bed & breakfast to pay $15,000 each to Todd and Mark Wathen as compensation for their emotional distress arising out of the issue; directed the bed & breakfast owner to cease and desist from violating the Human Rights Act, specifically by denying same-sex couples access to their facilities and services for marriages and civil unions; ordered the bed & breakfast owner to offer the Wathens (within one year) access to the facility for an event celebrating their civil union; ordered the bed & breakfast owner to pay the Wathens’ attorneys $50,000 in fees and $1,218.35 in costs.
“We are very happy that no other couple will have to experience what we experienced by being turned away and belittled and criticized for who we are,” said Todd Wathen of Mattoon. “In addition, the monetary award represents a recognition by the judge that Mark and I suffered a real harm, that we were embarrassed and humiliated.”
Shortly after Illinois approved civil unions early in 2011, Todd and Mark Wathen began planning their ceremony, searching for a location that would be convenient for their family in Kentucky and Missouri to be able to join them at a central location. After researching possible locations, they reached out via email to the Timber Creek Bed and Breakfast in Paxton -- a facility that advertised itself as available for civil weddings and other events -- the Wathens were rejected because their beliefs that “homosexuality is immoral and unnatural.” A few days later, the owner of Timber Creek sent another email to the Wathens lecturing them about his religious opinions regarding the “gay lifestyle” and his view that “[i]t’s not to[sic] late to change your behavior.”
“It is critical that the judge ordered this entity to end its unlawful practices, practices that discriminate against gay and lesbian couples,” added John Knight, LGBT Project Director for the ACLU of Illinois. “It is important that we have a clear and undiluted message that denying services to gay and lesbian couples for marriage and civil union ceremonies simply is not permitted in our state.”
Betty Tsamis, a lawyer in private practice in Chicago who also represents the Wathens again noted that the case provides an important precedent for “protecting against discrimination directed at same-sex couples by businesses serving the public."
"The damages make plain that business owners cannot pick-and-choose to follow laws simply because they personally object to same-sex relationships," added Ms. Tsamis.
Clay A. Tillack and Tai C. Chaiken of the Chicago office of Schiff Hardin LLP also served as co-counsel in the case.