Rules Are for Schmucks: Bigotry plus Greed

Photo by amoklv / 123RF

Same-sex marriage first became legal in Pennsylvania last May, when a federal district court ruled that the state’s statutory ban on marriage equality violated the equal protection clause of the U.S. Constitution. “In future generations,” the judge wrote, “the label same-sex marriage will be abandoned, to be replaced simply by marriage. We are a better people than what these laws represent, and it is time to discard them into the ash heap of history.”

One Pennsylvanian who is not necessarily “a better person than what these laws represent” is Mr. John Antolick, proprietor of the Inne of the Abingtons near Scranton. Shortly after the court ruled, Antolick proclaimed that same-sex weddings would not be welcome at his establishment. “My conscience will not allow me to use my business to endorse an event that contradicts God’s design for marriage,” he pompously declared.

This stance apparently does not violate any laws. “The federal and state laws which prohibit discrimination in public accommodations like a wedding venue do not protect sexual orientation,” local attorney Barry Dyller explained. There are a few Pennsylvania cities with nondiscrimination ordinances that cover sexual orientation, but the Inne of the Abingtons is not located in one of them.

Antolick’s announcement raised a firestorm on Facebook and social media, with many posters vowing never to darken his door again. That’s their right, just as much as it is Antolick’s right to discriminate against gays.

Here’s where it gets interesting. One of those troubled by Antolick’s sanctimony was Ms. Barb Giarratano, mother of a bride-to-be who was planning to hold her wedding at the Inne. Giarratano was legitimately concerned that some invited guests might refuse to attend, or attend but raise a stink, spoiling her daughter’s special day. So she canceled, and began scrambling to find another location.

But when she asked for a return of her $1,000 deposit, Antolick flatly refused, sticking to a technical provision in the contract stating that the deposit was nonrefundable.

Giarratano sued to get her money back. The case could have been quite interesting, but for reasons that aren’t completely clear she decided to drop it. Perhaps she prefers getting on with life rather than protracted battling over past injuries; lawyers call people with that attitude “party-poopers.” Nevertheless, the Christian press is having a field day, chortling that this is “a victory for religious liberty,” even though the battle was never actually fought.

Could Giarratano have won? She could have made it interesting. There is in real property law a concept called “an implied warranty of habitability,” which arises most often in landlord-tenant cases. Suppose on a sunny day you sign a one-year lease for an apartment. When a storm hits the following week, you notice that the rain is coming down in your bedroom nearly as hard as it is outside. You complain to the landlord, who does nothing to fix the leak. When you finally threaten to leave, the landlord says: “Go where you want, but the lease contract says you owe me a year’s rent.”

Under the “implied warranty of habitability,” perhaps you don’t. No matter what your lease says, the law presumes that the landlord has promised you an apartment you can actually live in. If conditions are so bad that a court would say the apartment is not “habitable,” it can tear up your lease.

Could this theory apply to a wedding venue as well as to a waterlogged apartment? It could if I were the judge. Antolick is in the wedding business, and should know how high-strung everyone involved can be; there are more perceived slights and insults at weddings than you can shake a stick at. Springing a shock like this on the Giarratano event was bound to have easily foreseeable repercussions.

I don’t know exactly the sequence of events here, but it’s not likely that Giarratano could have known about Antolick’s discriminatory policy at the time she signed the contract. There couldn’t be any issues about same-sex marriage in Pennsylvania until last May 20, because it wasn’t legal until then. It wasn’t until July that Antolick’s policy was announced. Many weddings, at special establishments like this, need to be booked months in advance. If in fact Giarratano put down her deposit when she had no way of knowing the minefield she was stepping into, who should suffer?

Somebody’s going to lose $1,000 here. Should it be the bride’s mother, who (probably) had no way of knowing that the event of her daughter’s lifetime would be tainted, if not ruined, by the bigotry of the landlord? Or should it be Antolick, who caused the problem?

Undoubtedly, it would have cost Ms. Giarratano far more than $1,000 make her argument in court, with no guarantee of success. Antolick, though, was represented for free by a well-funded Christian legal institute, bent on doing everything in its power to promote religious privilege over the rest of us. So the bad guys win, once again.

The Westwood (Louisiana) Baptist Church is handling things a bit differently. It’s trying to get ahead of the curve, by closing its hall to all outside groups, starting with Alcoholics Anonymous, to make sure it will never have to accommodate a same-sex wedding. There currently aren’t any nondiscrimination laws covering sexual orientation in this part of Louisiana, and if any are ever adopted they will probably have all the same exceptions that let churches ignore most of the rest of our civil rights laws. But they don’t want to take any chances. At least they’re being up front about their bigotry, and taking care not to inflict financial harm on those with whom they disagree. It would be nice if all bigotry would disappear, but that of the Louisiana Baptists seems a little less slimy than that of Mr. Antolick, who I hope is having a good time with the Giarratanos’ thousand bucks.