October 22, 2012

Truth Test: Anti-gay marriage ad uses misleading example

By Michael Shepherd mshepherd@centralmaine.com
Staff Writer

This new 15-second ad from Protect Marriage Maine, the group leading the charge against same-sex marriage in Maine, misses the accuracy mark.

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TRUTH TEST is a feature of MaineToday Media's campaign coverage in which we cast a critical eye on the truthfulness of advertising and public comments by political candidates and groups.

The ad features the keepers of the Wildflower Inn, the subject of a now-famous discrimination case regarding a same-sex couple in northeastern Vermont.

The ad says if gay marriage passes in Maine, "consequences" like that will happen here. It doesn't note that although the suit happened because of an inquiry into a same-sex wedding ceremony, it didn't happen because of Vermont's 2009 legalization of gay marriage. It had everything to do with Vermont's 1992 public accommodations law.

Maine passed a law similar to Vermont's in 2005, banning public accommodation discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, among other things. If same-sex marriage fails at the ballot, it still stands.

If a gay couple wanted to have a commitment ceremony today at a Maine inn and they were rejected on the basis of sexual orientation, the inn could be sued and would likely lose. The public accommodation law would not be changed if a same-sex "commitment" ceremony changed to a "marriage" ceremony.

So the ad insinuates a concrete change that's not there. Whether it's a symbolic change is another issue. We're calling the ad mostly false, as the data points of the case are right, but the more important implication prefacing them isn't. 

"Question 1 means consequences as has occurred elsewhere, like Vermont: 'A lesbian couple sued us for not supporting their gay wedding because of our Christian beliefs. We had to pay $30,000 and can no longer host any weddings at our inn.' " 

Let's go through the Wildflower Inn case, according to the American Civil Liberties Union, which helped the same-sex couple fight it, and the Alliance Defense Fund, which defended the inn.

The mother of one of the women in the same-sex couple called the inn in 2010 and inquired about the inn holding the same-sex wedding reception, an ACLU account said. Just after, the mother received an email from an employee at the inn saying the owners "do not host gay receptions at our facility." The couple filed suit in 2011 under Vermont's public accommodations law.

"(The case) has nothing to do with marriage equality -- zero, nada, zilch," said Robert Appel, executive director of the Vermont Human Rights Commission, which joined in the case against the inn with the ACLU.

The inn's lawyers at the Alliance Defense Fund have said the employee erred in saying they wouldn't do the ceremony. In a separate 2005 case, the Vermont Human Rights Commission ruled that the inn had to serve same-sex couples if they wanted to have ceremonies, but they could voice opposition to same-sex relationships to those couples. That was their policy, their lawyers said.

The 2011 Wildflower Inn case was settled out of court in August 2012, and the ACLU released the terms: Inn owners had to pay a $10,000 fine to the Vermont commission and set aside $20,000 in a charitable trust administered by the couple.

In the settlement, the inn agreed to not rely on the commission's 2005 decision and that they would adhere to accommodation laws. The inn agreed to stop performing any weddings and wedding receptions, though a lawyer for the inn said the owners previously planned to get out of the marriage business, according to the Huffington Post.

Carroll Conley, co-chairman of Protect Marriage Maine, contends that the legal conflict wouldn't exist if same-sex marriage wasn't the law in Vermont. "If it wasn't legal they wouldn't have that conflict with their religious beliefs," he said.

But Ira "Chip" Lupu, a professor at George Washington University Law School and an expert in state same-sex marriage laws, said the conflict already existed under Vermont law and it does now in Maine.

"The law about same-sex marriage did not create the conflict. The anti-discrimination law already created that conflict," Lupu said. "With or without your referendum passing, this could happen anytime."

Verdict: The details of the case are right, but the ad relies on suggesting same-sex marriage creates a conflict that already exists under Maine law. The Wildflower Inn suit was an issue of public accommodation. Maine's gay marriage law won't create a legal conflict on the issue that we don't have now. 

We rate this ad mostly false.

Michael Shepherd can be contacted at 621-5632 or at:



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