Complaint filed with the Department of Human Rights
CHICAGO – A young couple’s dream day turned into a nightmare after the owner of an Inn offering wedding services would not allow them to hold the non-religious wedding ceremony the couple desired. Jonathan Webber and Alexandra Katzman paid a deposit to Bernadine’s Stillman Inn in Galena in February of 2015 to secure the wedding date their chosen wedding date – May 14, 2016. Only when they visited the Inn on November 1, 2015 did the Inn’s owner, Dave Anderson, tell them that he would only permit a Christian wedding service in the facility. When Mr. Webber and Ms. Katzman noted that Ms. Katzman was Jewish and that her family members would be uncomfortable with such a service, Mr. Anderson said that the wedding was “not a good fit” for the Inn.
The charge filed last month with the Illinois Department of Human Rights alleges that the Inn, a public accommodation, denied the couple service on the basis of their religion. The couple is represented in the matter by the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois.
“The entire experience was maddening and humiliating,” said Ms. Katzman, who was married to Mr. Webber earlier this month at another location. “After months of thinking that we’d found the perfect location for our wedding, we learned that the only way we could move forward was to have a service that might well offend my Jewish guests and my religious heritage.”
“I was stunned when this happened,” added Mr. Webber. “The Inn had cashed our deposit check and had the form with our wedding needs – including a non-religious ceremony – for months. It was shocking to be turned away.”
Ms. Katzman and Mr. Webber determined that Bernadine’s Stillman Inn was the perfect location for their wedding because they stayed there the weekend they became engaged. In February 2015, after learning that their desired date was available, the couple sent the Inn a form outlining their wishes for the big day, including that they wanted a “non-religious” wedding ceremony. The Inn’s website provided instructions for securing the services a local judge for performing a wedding service, so they assumed that everything would be fine.
The couple’s hopes were dashed when they returned to Galena on November 1, 2015 to finalize details for their wedding. For the first time, Mr. Anderson told them that he could only perform a Christian wedding. Ms. Katzman explained that her family was Jewish, and thinking that Mr. Anderson misunderstood their plans, she volunteered that a friend’s mother was a judge and would be happy to perform the ceremony. Mr. Anderson said that he was not comfortable with anyone else performing a ceremony in his chapel.
Still hoping to salvage their plans, Mr. Webber and Ms. Katzman (after excusing themselves to speak privately) asked Mr. Anderson if they could hear what he would say, hoping that some compromise might be possible. Mr. Anderson complied, reading a long script that specifically and repeatedly referenced Jesus Christ. When Ms. Katzman again noted that her family was Jewish, Mr. Anderson replied that the couple was “not a good fit” for him, and refunded their deposit.
“This type of discrimination is exactly what the Illinois law was designed to prevent,” said Rebecca Glenberg, senior staff attorney at the ACLU of Illinois. “As a public business, open to all, the Inn cannot impose religious requirements on my clients or others, especially not at their own wedding.”
“Through the intervention of some good friends, we were able to keep our date and had a lovely wedding,” said Ms. Katzman. “But we don’t want anyone to go through this humiliation in the future – that is why we filed this complaint.”