EVERMAN — Ben Allen would like to consider himself just like any other groom planning a wedding. For weeks he’s been ordering flowers and discussing decorations.
But on Monday — when he called to book a venue for his reception — he ran into problems when it became clear he was marrying a man.
“She immediately responded with, ‘Well, no, I don’t do that,’ and that was just the end of that,” Allen said. “It felt like somebody had just hit me in the face.”
Allen, 26, and his partner of eight years, Justin Hudgins, 29, hoped to book a wedding reception for 150 guests at the All Occasion Party Place near Fort Worth. But Allen said he was told by phone and by e-mail the business won’t serve gays.
“It is because of God that I will not be a part in your reception, and I know he loves you, but not what you are doing,” an employee at the hall, Robin Hearne, wrote to Hudgins in an e-mail he provided to WFAA. “I simply said I can not rent to you which is also my right.”
The case is the latest outrage among activists frustrated in a state still far from legalizing same-sex marriage or strengthening gay rights.
“Refusing to provide services or public accommodations to anyone solely because of their sexual orientation or gender identity is wrong,” said Chuck Smith with Equality Texas. “Texans are proud people who believe in hard work and treating each other with dignity and respect.”
Still, lawyers say what All Occasion Party Place did is completely legal. Unlike race or religion, federal and state laws don’t consider sexual orientation a protected class.
“There’s nothing illegal about it,” said Peter Schulte, a Dallas attorney who has handled gay rights cases, but is not working on this one. “If a restaurant puts out a sign that says, ‘We’re not going to accept gays and lesbians,’ then they can do that.”
Gays may not be considered a protected class at the federal and state level, but cities and towns have been stepping in to pass their own discrimination laws protecting homosexuals.
In recent years, Fort Worth expanded its laws to not only forbid discrimination based on sexual orientation, but also the more loosely-defined terms of gender identity and gender expression.
The law applies to many groups of people and protects them from discrimination whether they are an employee or a customer.
Fort Worth only receives a handful of complaints a year, said Tracy Lasseter, with the city’s Human Relations Commission. Violators can face a $500 fine, but Lasseter says they've never issued one.
“The hammer is not very big,” she admits. “We try to work out reconciliation with both parties.”
City workers try to reach an agreement between the company and the complainant — either with an apology or the promise of extra sensitivity training.
Since state and federal laws trump local laws, Schulte says a judge would likely toss out the Fort Worth mandate if a fined company ever challenged the ordinance in court.
“It’s nice that it’s there. It’s nice that it’s on paper,” Schulte said, “but at this point the statutes really don’t have any teeth to them.”
All Occasions sits just outside Fort Worth’s city limits, so the city’s discrimination laws do not apply.
Allen and Hudgins are now looking for other venues, while hoping that by going public their story will change minds.
“We’re just people,” Hudgins said. “We’re not a gay couple... we’re a couple that loves each other.”