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Five-Year Civil Union Discrimination Case Settled in Illinois

Five-Year Civil Union Discrimination Case Settled in Illinois

By: M. Scott Gordon

Perhaps you heard in the news about a legal case in 2011 in which the owners of Illinois’s Timber Creek Bed & Breakfast denied access to a same-sex couple interested in hosting their civil union ceremony at the location. At the time, same-sex marriage had not yet been made legal in Illinois. To be sure, 2011 was the year that Illinois legalized civil unions for same-sex couples. While the case was previously decided by an administrative law judge who ruled in favor of the same-sex couple and their rights with regard to holding a civil union ceremony, a recent article in the Chicago Sun-Times noted the case was not firmly brought to a close until the Illinois Human Rights Commission weighed in.

Just recently, a “three-member panel of the Illinois Human Rights Commission sided with the judge . . . by declining to take on the case.” What does this mean for gay civil rights in Illinois? And will it have a discernible impact on legal issues surrounding civil unions in the Chicago area?

Background of the Discrimination Case and Religious Freedom

While the case that continues to make news received much press in 2011 (and, indeed, in the years since), we suspect you might need a brief refresher on the facts of the case. In brief, when the same-sex couple sought to hold a civil union ceremony at Timber Creek Bed & Breakfast, the facility refused to host the civil union ceremony on the grounds that they opposed same-sex civil unions based on their religious beliefs. The same-sex couple, Todd and Mark Wathen, filed a lawsuit against the Bed & Breakfast, arguing that it had violated Illinois law by refusing to serve as a host location for their ceremony.

The case became one about “the conflict between religious freedoms and gay civil rights,” according to the article. The article went on to explain that, in response to the lawsuit, “an administrative judge ruled last year that the owners violated the state’s Human Rights Act because the couple was denied a venue based on sexual orientation.”

The Illinois Human Rights Act (775 ILCS 5/) makes clear that the law provides freedom from unlawful discrimination, which includes “discrimination against any individual because of his or her race, color, religion, sex, national origin, ancestry, age, order of protection status, marital status, physical or mental disability, military status, sexual orientation, pregnancy, or unfavorable discharge from military service in connection with employment, real estate transactions, access to financial credit, and the availability of public accommodations.” In this particular case, Todd and Mark Wathen argued that they had been discriminated against based on sexual orientation.

Current Implications of the Decision from the Illinois Human Rights Commission

Why did the Illinois Human Rights Commission have the option of hearing this case? In short, when the bed and breakfast owners lost, they were ordered to pay approximately $80,000 in damages and legal fees, as well as to “allow same-sex couples access to their facilities.” As the article explains, the bed and breakfast’s website continues to make clear that is does “not host civil union or gay marriage ceremonies and/or receptions.”

In declining to hear this case, however, the Illinois Human Rights Commission has indicated, in effect, that the judge made the right decision. Advocates for gay civil rights suggest that “the move [by the Commission, in declining to hear the case] is a clear interpretation of Illinois law, whether applied to civil unions or marriage.”

Contact a Chicago Family Law Attorney

If you have questions about your rights with regard to civil unions in Illinois, or the benefits that can result from a civil union, an experienced Chicago family law attorney can help. Contact M. Scott Gordon & Associates today to learn more about our services.