Wedding venue settles discrimination case with couple

ST. PAUL, Minn. -- A wedding venue in Little Falls has reached a settlement with a same-sex couple who filed a discrimination complaint after being denied a chance to book a ceremony with the company.

The Minnesota's Human Rights Act of 1993 made it illegal to discriminate based on sexual orientation, a law that applies to housing, employment, education and public accommodations such as restaurants and theaters. But this is the first case to be made public in which the complaint involved a wedding venue.

Adam Block and Cole Frey of Saint Cloud will tie the knot next week at the Camp Ripley Chapel. But their first choice was Rice Creek Hunting and Recreation in Little Falls.

"It was perfect because we wanted to have an outdoor country wedding," Frey told KARE.

Rice Creek markets itself as a wedding venue, with overnight accommodations. But Frey was rejected when he tried to make arrangements with the company over the telephone in February.

"Once they found out it was between two males, it was going to be a same sex marriage, they stated they don't condone same-sex marriage and they wouldn't be hosting our wedding," Frey recalled.

"I told them that was against the law, and they reiterated that they wouldn't do it."

That response was in sharp contrast with the image Minnesota projected to the world a year ago when same-sex marriage became legal. And it was especially hard on Frey, who only recently came out to his family and friends.

"I'm new to the gay world. I had the courage to come out, and then I was told I was being denied the right to be happy, denied the thing I'd dreamed up secretly for so many years."

Frey said the stress of trying to find another wedding venue, combined with the emotional letdown of being rejected, caused him to land in the hospital. Block said he was shocked too, but didn't think there'd be any recourse.

"I believe everyone should have the same rights, equal opportunity to get married or be serviced by any public business," Block said.

Block and Frey filed a formal discrimination complaint with the Minnesota Department of Human Rights.

"This is a case where it appeared on its face it was a clear violation of the law," Minnesota Human Rights Commissioner Kevin Lindsey told KARE.

Lindsey said the department's own investigator, posing as a person trying to plan a same-sex wedding, received the same answer from Rice Creek.

At that point Lindsey deemed there was probably cause to move ahead with litigation against the company, or -- as an alternative -- invite the company to enter into a conciliation process with the young couple.

"During the course of the investigation they said they felt it was their right to be able to say no to someone," Lindsey explained.

"But when you're engaging in public accommodations, and by public accommodations you're selling a good or service to the broader public, you don't have that right to discriminate."

In short, Adam and Cole have the legal right to buy any service offered to the general public, regardless of sexual orientation. The Human Rights Act carves out an exception when it comes to religious organizations such as churches.

"The company's attorney said they appreciated the fact that we had pointed out that they weren't following the law," Commissioner Lindsey explained.

"They wished to make amends at that point in time and agreed to enter into a conciliation or settlement with us."

Rice Creek agreed to pay for the couple's entire wedding, which will run roughly $6,000 plus hotel costs for their out-of-town guests, which will add another $2,500 to the value of the settlement.

By this story's deadline Rice Creek's owners had not returned calls to KARE.

The company's Twin Cities attorney, Paul Rogosheske, told The St. Cloud Times newspaper Friday that Rice Creek realized it was a mistake to refuse service to the couple.

"We did everything we could to remedy it," Rogosheske told the newspaper, "We wish them the best."

Rice Creek offered to fit Frey and Block into the schedule in September, but by then the couple had booked the chapel at Camp Ripley and their guests had already made plans around an August 29 marriage.

Frey and Block said they originally wanted to press for a higher settlement, but came to understand that Rice Creek was a small company with limited resources.

"We believe they've learned a valuable lesson, and perhaps this will send a message," Frey said.

He acknowledged some private wedding contractors may dig in their heels and decide to fight the Dept. of Human Resources in court, because of religious objections.

"We understand that people do have their religion, and they do believe this is wrong," Frey explained. "You can have that belief but at the same time we also have our beliefs where we believe that everybody should be treated fairly."


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