CHICAGO – When same-sex couples begin to wed in Illinois this summer, some of the businesses that make those weddings happen may face a delicate predicament.
While the new legislation – expected to be signed into law today by Gov. Pat Quinn – says religious institutions, clergy and some private clubs don’t have to allow or officiate gay weddings, it’s not as clear for the florists, caterers, tailors and photographers and others who don’t want to participate. That could result in more court battles in President Barack Obama’s home state, just as other states have seen, and attorneys on both sides of the issue are gearing up for it.
For some business owners, it may mean putting their personal beliefs aside.
Wedding planner Virginia Pruitt, who runs Wedding Visions by Virginia in suburban Chicago, has given the matter much thought. She bills her business as being Christian-owned, doesn’t agree with same-sex marriage and caters largely to couples of her faith. Even so, she feels she can’t turn anyone way.
“I’m not going to be biased toward anyone. If they chose me, it’s an honor. It’s an opportunity to shine a light, possibly toward Christianity. I won’t tell anybody I’m in agreement with what they’re doing,” she said. “I have to separate to a certain extent, my beliefs from that of the business. I am a Christian, the business is a business.”
Illinois is set to become the 16th state to legalize same sex unions, along with Washington D.C. Most recently, Hawaii’s governor signed a bill into law. Illinois’ event is expected to be festive with thousands in attendance.
However, attorneys who represent groups opposing same-sex marriage said the legal fight isn’t over. They claim the law doesn’t have enough protections for business owners, including for businesses that refuse.
“We’re going to have to go to court,” said Peter Breen, an attorney with the Thomas More Society, a Chicago-based public interest firm. “There are a lot of issues that are going to arise.”
Meanwhile, the ACLU of Illinois says such lawsuits aren’t warranted, but they’ll defend the new law if necessary.
Other states are seeing the issue play out.
Earlier this year in New Mexico, the state Supreme Court ruled that an Albuquerque business owned by opponents of gay marriage violated an anti-discrimination law when the business refused to photograph a same-sex couple’s ceremony. Attorneys for the business have asked the U.S. Supreme Court to hear an appeal. In Washington, a flower shop owner was sued for refusing service for a same-sex wedding.
“A lot of business owners are asserting their constitutional rights,” said James Campbell, with the Alliance Defending Freedom, a conservative Christian law group.
Currently in Illinois, a complaint over civil unions — which Illinois allowed in 2011 — is pending before the Illinois Human Rights Coalition. The owners of a central Illinois bed and breakfast refused to perform a civil union for a same-sex couple that same year.
“This isn’t about hate. I don’t know any Christian who does,” said attorney Jason Craddock who represents the owners of Timber Creek Bed and Breakfast in Paxton. “We don’t want to cause anyone pain. It’s about our faith and it’s out of love too, but we don’t believe that giving into something that our faith tells us is wrong.”
Craddock has argued that the owners don’t have the ability to perform civil unions for any couple and that such events aren’t a public accommodation and would violate the owners’ religious rights under the First Amendment and a state religious freedom act.
However, the ACLU in Illinois says the decades-old Illinois Human Rights Act protects civil rights.
Businesses that provide a public service aren’t allowed to discriminate, said ACLU of Illinois spokesman Ed Yohnka. The organization brought a lawsuit on behalf of 25 couples who were challenging the state’s same-sex marriage ban. The lawsuit is on hold and will likely be dismissed once the state’s new same-sex marriage law goes into effect on June 1.
“A business owner, if they offer their services to the public, it’s a public accommodation,” he said. “You don’t get to pick and choose.”
The group said it will track cases and be prepared to file lawsuits.
Backers of the Illinois measure have said that there are adequate protections. They pushed the bill the as a matter of equality and family rights. Advocates said that public opinion on the matter has rapidly shifted and the U.S. Supreme Court decision over the summer to strike down a provision of the federal Defense of Marriage Act reflected that.
Not all wedding-related businesses feel conflicted.
Cindy Savage opened Chicago event planning business, Crafty Broads, with her partner in 2010. The duo planned nearly two dozen weddings nationwide this year, including three with same-sex couples. Her business is offering a discount for all couples getting married in 2014 after Illinois’ law takes effect.
“We expect to see an uptick,” she said. “We’re really excited and hopefully it will spread.”