A private hunting club in Little Falls, Minn., has agreed to pay for the wedding ceremony and reception of a same-sex couple it refused to accommodate.
Cole Frey and Adam Bock, of St. Cloud, filed a complaint with the Minnesota Department of Human Rights after Rice Creek Hunting and Recreation Inc. turned down their request to book space for a country-themed wedding.
On Friday, the human rights department announced a settlement, the state's first case involving a gay couple denied service at a wedding venue. The club agreed to pay Frey and Block $8,500, apologize to them and agree to comply with the state's Human Rights Act in future business dealings.
A year ago, the Legislature expanded passed a bill that allows same-sex couples to marry. But discrimination based on sexual orientation has been illegal in Minnesota for decades.
In February, Frey thought the hunting lodge seemed to fit what he and Bock were looking for.
"When we first contacted Rice Creek Farms, they told us that they had openings for our wedding date," Frey said. "They collected our information. Once they found out that the wedding was between two males, they stated that they wouldn't be going through with it because they don't condone same-sex marriages and they're just not ready for that yet."
Frey said he was a little shocked since he knew Minnesota had legalized same sex marriage in 2013. He contacted the Minnesota Department of Human Rights, which began an investigation.
Commissioner Kevin Lindsey says the complaint seemed to indicate the company had violated the Human Rights Act, which prohibits discrimination in public accommodations based on sexual orientation.
To check to see if the lodge treated same-sex couples as Frey and Block had described, the department had an employee telephone the lodge to reserve the wedding hall space as a member of a same-sex couple. Rice Creek employees responded exactly as the couple had alleged in their complaint, Lindsey said.
"This is a situation in which they were just unaware of what that law required them to do," Lindsey said. "We met with the respondent and the charging parties and then sought to conciliate this case rather quickly and we were fortunate to be able to accomplish that and get a good settlement for all parties."
Paul Rogosheske, an attorney for the hunting club, said the employee who declined to book Frey and Block's ceremony made a mistake.
Rogosheske also said the LeBlanc family, which who owns the club, had been given bad advice. They erroneously believed a private hunting club could claim a religious exemption, he said.
"We couldn't apologize enough to the couple and it was a sincere apology," Rogosheske said. "You've got to understand that when you're very, very religious and you're in a community such as Little Falls which is very, very religious and you attend church all the time, sometimes you just don't understand the difference between religion and what the law requires."
The settlement is the first since last August, when same-sex marriages became legal in Minnesota.
Lindsey said the Department of Human Rights cannot discuss the number of cases it has pending, but most inquiries have dealt with employee benefits questions. Calls about wedding vendors have tapered off, he said.
But some business are concerned about the issue, said Autumn Leva, spokesperson for the Minnesota Family Council, which opposes same-sex marriage.
Leva said the Department of Human Rights shouldn't be in the business of punishing business owners who express their faith.
"The same-sex marriage law does not protect business owners or individuals," she said. "The only people who are given religious freedom protection in the law are some churches and religious organizations and not even all of those, so it really is a very hostile environment for business owners and just individuals of faith who want to exercise their faith in the public square right now."
Frey and Block plan to wed a week from today in another venue near Little Falls before 30 guests. They say the settlement feels like a weight has been lifted.
"It just feels good that we can get our story out there and let it be known that this won't happen again," Frey said. "Now that the first case has happened in Minnesota, now people will take this as a learning curve and they'll think twice before they deny someone a public accommodation again."
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