PAXTON — For almost two years, Jim Walder has not allowed civil-union ceremonies at his bed-and-breakfast near Paxton. And come June, same-sex weddings will be next on the list of activities to be legally recognized in Illinois, yet banned at the TimberCreek Bed & Breakfast.
"As long as I own TimberCreek, there will never be a gay marriage at this wedding venue," Walder said.
Walder, a Christian, has stood up publicly for his religious freedoms since 2011, when a gay couple from Mattoon filed a civil-rights complaint alleging he discriminated against them when he refused to host their civil-union ceremony at his business, which advertises itself as a site for weddings and other special events.
As he continues to await a ruling on that complaint by the Illinois Human Rights Commission, Walder is now expecting further legal battles once the new state law legalizing same-sex marriages goes into effect June 1. He hopes state lawmakers can amend the law to allow businesses like his to choose whether they want to allow gay marriages on their properties, based on their personal beliefs.
"I totally support exemptions for everyone doing business in the wedding industry regarding civil unions or gay marriage," Walder said, warning that "our current legal predicament could be the predicament of other businesses in Paxton, as well," such as photographers, caterers, cake bakers or wedding planners.
State Rep. Josh Harms, R-Watseka, is among the lawmakers pushing for a change.
Harms said he voted last year against the Religious Freedom and Marriage Fairness Act because, among other reasons, "businesses will be forced to host, cater or otherwise serve gay weddings, even if their religion forbids it."
Harms said he had planned to draft legislation to protect "the rights of those individuals and businesses that have religious objections to gay weddings," but he has since narrowed the focus of the proposed legislation. Harms said he now is working to draft a bill that would expand the law to "protect all entities controlled by the church" — specifically, private schools affiliated with churches.
'A hard sell'
The law says that "religious facilities" are not required to host same-sex weddings if against a church's religious beliefs, but that exemption does not apply to educational facilities.
Some churches operate schools that rent out space to the public, Harms said.
"What we're trying to get done right now is just something to protect all the entities that are under (the control of) the church," Harms said.
Harms said he still wants the law changed to protect the religious freedom of business owners, too, but he opted to limit his bill's scope because it has "the highest probability for success" in passing the House and Senate.
"I think (the legislation protecting business owners) will be a hard sell," Harms noted. "I've been talking to some other reps about carrying the other one that will give a personal objection exemption (to business owners). But I think it will be very hard to get through (into law)."
State Sen. Jason Barickman, R-Bloomington, the only Republican senator to vote in support of the same-sex marriage law, said he would consider supporting Harms' legislation. But Barickman indicated he would not support any bill introduced to exempt business owners from hosting gay marriages. Banning gay weddings but allowing heterosexual weddings would be discrimination, he said.
"As far as the bed-and-breakfast goes, their ability to turn away same-sex couples is prohibited by the Human Rights Act," Barickman said. "They are unable to say 'no' to a same-sex couple not because of the same-sex marriage law that just passed, but because of the anti-discrimination law that passed long before Rep. Harms and myself were in the legislature."
Harms said he expects issues to arise with businesses refusing to host gay weddings once the law is in effect.
The Thomas More Society, a Chicago-based nonprofit public interest law firm that has been at the forefront of the gay marriage debate in Illinois, said in a news release on its website that it is prepared to file litigation if that happens.
'Attack on freedom'
"The idea that free people can be 'compelled by law to compromise the very religious beliefs that inspire their lives' as the 'price of citizenship' is a chilling and unprecedented attack on freedom," said Tom Brejcha, president and chief counsel at the Thomas More Society.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois, meanwhile, said it will continue to fight for the rights of gay and lesbian couples.
"Entities that conduct business with the public are bound by Illinois law not to discriminate against customers for a range of reasons, including sexual orientation," said Ed Yohnka, director of communications and public policy for the ACLU of Illinois. "The notion that we would carve out an exception to these laws for businesses that want to discriminate against gay and lesbian couples is something that we oppose strenuously.
"If such a carve-out is allowed, what next? Could a business say that they have a religious objection to folks of other religious beliefs, or against women? We do not let people pick and choose which nondiscrimination laws they follow. We enforce the law for the benefit of everyone. Changing that policy invites chaos."
The ACLU is representing Todd and Mark Wathen in their civil-rights complaint against Walder and his bed-and-breakfast. Yohnka said "the case is fully briefed and we are simply awaiting a decision" by a hearing officer for the Illinois Human Rights Commission.
Chicago attorney Jason R. Craddock is representing Walder. Craddock works for the Thomas More Society but is taking on the Walder case on his own at this point, he said.
Craddock said he is arguing that no discrimination took place because, first of all, the Wathens never asked to rent the Walder property.
According to Walder, Mark Wathen emailed him and asked, "Do you plan on doing same sex civil unions starting on June 1st????" But a request to rent the facility was never made, Walder said.
Because Walder opposed holding civil union ceremonies at his bed-and-breakfast for religious reasons, Craddock said it would be a violation of Walder's First Amendment rights if the Human Rights Commission were to side in the Wathens' favor.
If that happens, Craddock said the decision would be appealed, and if the decision is still upheld, litigation would be the next step.
Craddock said there is concern that the impending decision may set a precedent for future similar cases. "So it's extremely important that we keep fighting for the rights of people like Jim Walder and others who want to exercise their liberty to do business," Craddock said.
'Business is up'
Walder said the Wathens' complaint has "caused us to lose a few weddings with brides and grooms who do not agree and decide to take their business elsewhere, but that's OK. Overall our business is up substantially since the Wathens filed their complaint. We hosted 26 weddings last year."
Walder said he has received several inquiries from same-sex couples seeking to use his facilities, including a recent email from "a female who supposedly fell in love with TimberCreek from our website and wanted to have her lesbian wedding here."
The TimberCreek website lists Walder's position against same-sex marriages and civil unions.
"If you go to http://www.timbercreekbb.com/history, towards the bottom of the page you will find what I believe and how I look at the issue. It is posted there for the world to see," Walder said.