In 2005, two women asked Wildflower Inn, a Vermont bed and breakfast owned and operated by Jim and Mary O’Reilly, to host their civil-union ceremony. Jim agreed to host the ceremony because he believed that Vermont law required him to do so, but he explained that hosting such an event conflicted with his deeply held religious belief that marriage is between one man and one woman. The women filed a complaint with the Vermont Human Rights Commission, which conducted an investigation and concluded that Jim had complied with the state’s public accommodation laws.
Relying on that official ruling, the O’Reillys established a practice of agreeing to host same-sex ceremonies, while informing customers that hosting such events violated their family’s belief that marriage is between one man and one woman. In 2010, an events coordinator that the O’Reillys had hired failed to comply with this established practice. Instead, she turned down a request to host a same-sex reception and offered her personal wedding-coordination services to the prospective customer. The same-sex couple involved then contacted the ACLU and sued Jim and Mary in Vermont state court. Worse yet, the Vermont Human Rights Commission, which had approved Jim’s practice, got involved to support the charges against the O’Reillys. It turns out the commission’s director was serving on the board of the Vermont ACLU.
Alliance Defending Freedom and its allies came to Jim and Mary’s defense. They explained to the plaintiffs and the ACLU that the events coordinator had acted without the O’Reillys’ knowledge and that Jim and Mary conducted themselves consistent with the commission’s prior ruling. But the ACLU was not interested in the O’Reillys’ good faith or the fact that they had stopped hosting wedding events months before the lawsuit was filed. The ACLU argued that even stating a religious objection to holding a same-sex ceremony violated state law and asked for punitive damages against Jim and Mary for “reprehensible conduct” and “malice.
Because continuing to fight the ACLU and the state threatened to cripple their small business and their ability to earn a living, the O’Reillys decided to settle the lawsuit. Jim and Mary obtained a statement by the plaintiffs and the Vermont Human Rights Commission that they had always acted in good faith in compliance with the commission’s prior ruling. In return, they agreed to pay $10,000 to the commission and $20,000 to a charitable trust set up by the plaintiffs.
What's at stake
The freedom to operate a business according to your deeply held beliefs without the fear of being punished by the government.
The ability to own and operate a business without hosting events with which you disagree.
Our role in this case
Alliance Defending Freedom and its allies defended Jim and Mary O’Reilly and the Wildflower Inn when they came under activist attack for communicating their religious beliefs about marriage.