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'Substantial Evidence' That B&Bs Violated Downstate Gay Couple's Rights

MATTOON, Ill. (CBS) -- State officials have found "substantial evidence" that the civil rights of a gay couple downstate were violated by two facilities that refused to host their civil union ceremony.

Todd and Mark Wathen, of downstate Mattoon, had been planning their civil union ceremony for months before the law allowing same-sex civil unions in Illinois took effect on June 1. But two venues – the Beall Mansion in Alton and the TimberCreek Bed & Breakfast in Paxton, about 50 miles south of Kankakee, refused to accommodate them.

After the rejections, the Wathens filed complaints with the state, got their civil union license on June 1 and on June 4 had a ceremony and reception in their backyard.

"It wasn't exactly what we wanted," Todd Wathen said, but, "It was nice. We had a tent and tables and a gazebo, my two children were there," as well as brothers, sisters, other family and friends. "It turned out good."

The Wathens are being represented by Chicago attorney Betty Tsamis. They filed complaints with the state Attorney General's office and the Department 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.

Last week, they were informed by the department that it concluded "there is substantial evidence that a civil rights violation has been committed."

Earlier this year, Todd Wathen contacted the Beall Mansion and TimberCreek, in hopes of finding a downstate venue instead of coming to Chicago and making all their family members travel far.

In an e-mail reply from the Beall Mansion, 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."
TimberCreek, was more emphatic in its denial. An e-mail reply from Jim Walder stated: "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."

When informed by Todd Wathen of the new law, Walder replied in an e-mail, "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."

In a later e-mail, Wathen 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 to late to change your behavior."

Asked about his comments, Walder told the Sun-Times Media Wire in March that he was caught off guard by public reaction to the story, but could not comment further. "I have been thrown into this controversy without warning," he said in an e-mail.

The Beall Mansion later e-mailed to say it did not host civil union ceremonies or receptions for same-sex or heterosexual couples, "nor do we do many other types of events," though its website boasts of "elegant accommodations for pleasure or business, weddings and receptions ... corporate retreats ... anniversary parties, fund-raising events, bridal and baby showers."

Representatives of the Beall Mansion have not replied to requests for comment.

The Wathens' story appeared in the Chicago Sun-Times in March, and was later picked up by news outlets and blogs nationwide. The response heartened them so much that it inspired one of the partners, Mark Wathen, to make it publicly know he was gay.

Only Todd Wathen wanted to go public when the story originally ran because his partner was not out at his job. "He was planning on doing so after our civil union," in order to "put me on his insurance," Wathen said.

But his partner, Mark Wathen (Todd took Mark's last name after a commitment ceremony eight years ago) told his work ... and it was great. They are supporting us 100 percent. At least something is going right," Todd Wathen said.

Tsamis said the Human Relations Department investigation into the discrimination allegations has concluded, but that she and her clients are now evaluating options, which could include a commission hearing or a civil suit. The attorney general's office is still reviewing the case.

"Of course we're glad," Todd Wathens said of the IDHR ruling. "We knew we were right when we filed the complaint. To hear (the state) agrees with us feels good in that respect."

The Sun-Times Media Wire contributed to this report.

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