Schiff Hardin played a pivotal role in an Illinois Court of Appeals dismissal of an appeal by bed and breakfast owners seeking to justify their discrimination by religious beliefs against a gay couple interested in using the facility for a civil union ceremony. The court’s June 2017 ruling in Wathen v. Timber Creek Bed and Breakfast represents an important victory for LGBT rights in Illinois, especially in cases involving religious freedom as a justification for discrimination.
Shortly after Illinois approved civil unions in early 2011, Todd and Mark Wathen started planning their ceremony. The couple selected Timber Creek, a bed and breakfast that advertises its availability for weddings, including civil weddings. Timber Creek denied the couple’s email inquiry, writing that “homosexuality is immoral and unnatural.” The owner wrote again days later to chastise the couple’s “gay lifestyle,” adding, “It’s not too late to change your behavior.” The couple filed a complaint with the Illinois Human Rights Commission (HRC), to which Timber Creek responded that hosting a same-sex union would violate their religious liberty.
The Schiff Hardin team partnered with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the couple’s private counsel to persuade the Illinois HRC to grant the couple’s motion for summary disposition. The commission ruled last year that the Timber Creek owners had violated Illinois law barring discrimination based on sexual orientation.
More than six years after Illinois approved civil unions, the court rejected the appeal after counsel repeatedly violated the applicable court rules.
“This was a long process, but the issue was critical to resolve,” said Clay Tillack, a Schiff Hardin partner and chair of the firm’s LGBT Diversity Subcommittee, who served as cooperating counsel in the case. “There can be no doubt about the state of the law in Illinois after this matter has been resolved – discrimination in publicly available venues simply is not permitted.”