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Downstate Men Denied Civil Union Accommodations

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Mark And Todd Wathen

Mark (left) and Todd Wathen were denied service at two downstate bed-and-breakfasts for their planned civil union. (Credit: The Wathens)

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MATTOON, Ill. (STMW) – When civil unions were legalized in Illinois, a pair of downstate men started planning their future, but when they tried to rent a hall for the celebration, they learned discrimination does not end with a stroke of the governor’s pen.

Now the Illinois Attorney General’s office is investigating after two bed and breakfasts refused to rent them space for a ceremony and reception, including one in the Kankakee area.

One owner explained he only hosted “traditional weddings” and not civil unions, while the other was more emphatic, telling the men homosexual unions were “wrong” and citing Bible verses to justify his opinion.

Todd Wathen of Mattoon and his partner, Mark Wathen, both in their mid-40s, have been together for about eight years.

Following passage of the Illinois Religious Freedom Protection and Civil Unions Act, which takes effect in June, they planned for a civil union ceremony later that month.

A couple of days after Gov. Pat Quinn signed the bill on Jan. 31, the Wathens contacted the Beall Manison in Alton and the TimberCreek B&B in Paxton, about 50 miles south of Kankakee, to book a venue for a ceremony and reception.

But in an e-mail reply from the Beall Mansion, Todd Wathen was told, “At this point we will just be doing traditional weddings.”

Beall’s definition of traditional weddings: “Weddings as opposed to civil unions.”

The inn later e-mailed back to say they did not host civil union ceremonies or receptions for either same-sex or heterosexual couples, “nor do we do many other types of events.”

Its website, however, boasts “elegant accommodations for pleasure or business, weddings and receptions … corporate retreats … anniversary parties, fund-raising events, bridal and baby showers.”

While the Beall treid to avoid the issue, Timber Creek was more emphatic in its denial.

In an e-mail reply to Todd Wathen, Jim A. Walder of the TimberCreek Bed & Breakfast wrote: “We will never host same-sex civil unions. We will never host same-sex weddings even if they become legal in Illinois.

“We believe homosexuality is wrong and unnatural based on what the Bible says about it. If that is discrimination, I guess we unfortunately discriminate,” Walder wrote.

When informed of the new law, Walder replied, “The Bible does not state opinions, but facts. It contains the highest laws pertinent to man. It trumps Illinois law, United States law, and global law should there ever be any.”

Three days later on Feb. 18, Walder sent an unsolicited e-mail to Todd Wathen that included links to Bible passages. He wrote, “Hi Todd, I know you may not want to hear this, but I thought I would send along a couple of verses in Romans 1 detailing how the Creator of the Universe looks at the gay lifestyle. It’s not too late to change your behavior.”

Todd Wathen said he was taken aback by the response from both inns.

“If they’d just sent the e-mail back and said, ‘Hey, I’m uncomfortable with this,’ or ‘I wouldn’t be the best (place) for this, but I wish you luck’,” the couple wouldn’t have minded being turned down.

But, “They don’t have a right to talk to us like that,” he said.

Todd and Mark Wathen are being represented by Chicago attorney Betty Tsamis.

They filed complaints with the Illinois Attorney General’s office and the Dept. of Human Rights alleging violations of the Illinois Human Rights Act, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation by businesses open to the public, Tsamis said.

“The attorney general’s office has started its investigation,” she said. “The AG’s office gets involved when there is a pattern and practice that adversely affects a large group of protected people (in this case, gays and lesbians).”

The attorney general’s office is “reviewing the case to determine if these individuals may have been discriminated against over their sexual orientation,” spokeswoman Robyn Ziegler said. “If so, that would be a violation of the state’s civil rights law.”

TimberCreek and Beall Mansion did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Though they had a commitment ceremony about eight years ago, “This is what we’ve been waiting for — to have the same rights and benefits as a married couple,” Todd Wathen said.

“It seems the only place accepting of this is Chicago,” but the couple doesn’t want to make their family members travel to Chicago, and “we shouldn’t have to go through the whole state of Illinois” to find a place that would be willing to host the ceremony.

Todd and Mark chose the two particular inns because they are natives of southern Indiana and northern Kentucky and it would be easier for family members to drive to Alton or Paxton then to Chicago, Todd Wathen said Tuesday.

He said for most family members, a trip to Chicago would be six or seven hours, whereas “we’re not too far at all from Timber Creek,” and Alton is easily accessible to family from Missouri, Indiana and Kentucky because it is not far from I-64.

“I’m trying to plan a wedding, just like anybody else would,” he said. “Both of these places offer wedding and reception areas.”

“We don’t want to go to the clerk’s office and get it done by a Justice of the Peace,” he said. “We want a place to remember.”

Todd Wathen said he and Mark are continuing to look for a venue will be willing to host their celebration, but “I’m almost at the point where I’m scared of contacting anybody else. I don’t want those (kind of) responses.”

(Source: Sun-Times Media Wire © Chicago Sun-Times 2011. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.)

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