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Political Smell Test: Evidence lacking for tie between marriage law, firing & lawsuit

Post by Jordan Schrader / The News Tribune on Oct. 24, 2012 at 3:06 pm |
October 24, 2012 6:29 pm

THE CLAIMS: A TV commercial that opponents of Washington’s same-sex marriage referendum started airing Tuesday says, “Experience shows how Referendum 74 can harm people who oppose gay marriage.”

It then goes on to spotlight three people who say they have been harmed: Damian Goddard and Jim and Mary O’Reilly.

Jim O’Reilly says: “A lesbian couple sued us for not supporting their gay wedding because of our Christian beliefs. We had to pay $30,000 and can no longer host any weddings at our inn.”

Goddard says: “I was a national sportscaster in Canada. When a sports agent spoke out in favor of traditional marriage, I sent a personal tweet that I agreed with him. The next day I was fired.”

Opponents are using the same footage for ads in Maine, where same-sex marriage is also on the ballot Nov. 6.

Chip White, the spokesman for opposition group Preserve Marriage Washington, said the ad “shows real-life examples of serious negative consequences that people can face when marriage is redefined.” In a news release, he also said: “The same thing will happen in Washington if R-74 is approved.”

R-74-backing Washington United for Marriage said the incidents its opponents bring up have nothing to do with laws on marriage. “We have six states plus the District of Columbia that have marriage,” campaign manager Zach Silk said, “and there has been ample evidence that there has been no increase in lawsuits there.”

THE FACTS:

In the ad, the people involved in the cases accurately describe what happened to them.

The tie between those incidents and Washington’s proposal to recognize same-sex marriage is less clear.

Same-sex marriage is legal in Vermont, but the O’Reillys and their inn ran afoul of the state’s public-accommodations law, not the marriage law.

A lesbian couple wanting to have a wedding reception, Kate and Ming Linsley, sued the Wildflower Inn after being turned away. The lawsuit was settled in August after the inn agreed to pay $30,000 and stop hosting weddings and receptions.

By signing the settlement agreement, the inn owners agreed that any future “disparate treatment of same-sex couples” is illegal, including “discouragement of the couples from using the accommodations, facilities, advantages and privileges of any place of public accommodation.”

Washington has a law already on the books that guarantees “the right to the full enjoyment of any of the accommodations, advantages, facilities, or privileges of any place of public resort, accommodation, assemblage, or amusement” regardless of sexual orientation.

That won’t change whether R-74 passes or fails.

It is possible that legalizing same-sex marriage would make such clashes more likely in Washington, when thousands of gay couples look for places to have ceremonies. R-74 would allow churches and religious leaders to refuse to participate in weddings, but businesses still would fall under the accommodations law.

But based on the experience of other states, Washington doesn’t appear likely to see many lawsuits or claims. Officials at the human-rights agencies in Connecticut, New Hampshire and Massachusetts, which all recognize same-sex marriage, said they don’t know of any complaints by same-sex couples over businesses turning them away for marriages. Vermont’s agency said the Wildflower Inn was the only instance of that happening there.

One place where a similar case has cropped up: Illinois, where same-sex marriage isn’t legal. A gay couple there looking for a place to have their civil-union ceremony filed discrimination claims against two bed-and-breakfast inns. One case was dropped and the other is awaiting a hearing.

So such cases can pop up in states regardless of marriage laws, and opponents don’t provide evidence they are more common in states with same-sex marriage.

White noted there’s no “database system that can comb through all the millions of lawsuits in America and find all the ones that have to do with people’s beliefs about marriage.” But he said if cases are popping up in places without same-sex marriage, “it would only get worse if there is same-sex marriage.”

Similarly, opponents say people are losing their jobs or having their jobs threatened because of same-sex marriage laws, but don’t provide evidence that it’s more common in places with those laws. They point to the case of the Canadian broadcaster, Goddard, but they also cite the case of a teacher suspended in Florida, where same-sex marriage is not legal. The teacher had criticized New York’s marriage law, and was later reinstated, according to news reports.

News reports about Goddard don’t suggest Canada’s law allowing same-sex marriage played a role in the episode.

The Rogers Sportsnet TV network fired him from his hosting job in 2011, according to an Associated Press report. The broadcaster had sent out a tweet agreeing with a hockey agent during a debate over a New York Rangers player’s support of same-sex marriage. He wrote: “I completely and whole-heartedly support (agent) Todd Reynolds and his support for the traditional and TRUE meaning of marriage.”

The company cut ties with Goddard, saying he “was a freelance contractor and in recent weeks it had become clear that he is not the right fit for our organization,” according to the AP story.

That could happen in Washington with or without the marriage law. Private employers here can fire people “at will” as long as they don’t violate discrimination restrictions or other laws.

BOTTOM LINE: The speakers describe their experiences accurately. But it’s a stretch to describe a firing by a private company in Canada and a penalty based on an anti-discrimination law in Vermont as examples of how “Referendum 74 can harm people who oppose gay marriage.” While it’s possible those kinds of incidents could happen in Washington, there’s no evidence that R-74 makes them more likely.

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