A Northern California winery that initially denied a same-sex couple’s request to host a wedding on its property on religious grounds has reversed course following public outcry.
The Viaggio Estate and Winery in Acampo, Calif., regularly hosts weddings on their site, as advertised on the wedding site The Knot. “The perfect beginning to your journey to forever,” the online summary reads.
But when Dezanea Reyes, 25, inquired last week about the venue’s availability to host her upcoming nuptials to her fiancee, Alex Biddle, a wedding coordinator informed her that their marriage ceremony would be “violating” the winery owners’ “personal religious beliefs.”
The coordinator, writing on behalf of the owners, cited the U.S. Constitution and state protections in justification for the owners’ decision.
“[The owners] understand that California statutory law prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation, and they don’t like to think they would ever discriminate on that basis even if a law allowed them to do so. However, the owner also has a very strong personal religious belief regarding marriage, which is for marriage to be between heterosexual couples only,” the response reads. “They believe that the United States Constitution and the California Constitution protect these religious beliefs and their right to express them.”
Reyes said that family and friends told her the comments were discriminatory. Some advised her to take legal action.
“I’m a religious person myself and wouldn’t have felt comfortable suing someone for their religious beliefs,” she said.
David B. Cruz, a constitutional law professor at USC, said that the winery owners’ religious beliefs would likely not hold up if legal action were taken, as previous cases have prohibited discrimination in public accommodations, including wedding venues.
In 2018, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of a Colorado baker who refused to make a celebratory cake for a same-sex couple. But Cruz said that the court did not deviate from the understanding of the law, because the basis of the ruling was that the state commission that originally found the bakery owner in violation of the law displayed a religious bias against him. The court ruled that the baker had been treated with hostility from the state, while also cementing its support for gay rights.
Former Justice Anthony M. Kennedy said that while some may object to same-sex marriage, “it is a general rule that such objections do not allow business owners and other actors in the economy and in society to deny protected persons equal access to goods and services under a neutral and generally applicable public accommodations law.” The court largely rejected the claim that store owners have broad religious liberty to turn a customer away because of their sexual orientation.
Kimberly West-Faulcon, a law professor at Loyola Marymount University, said the ruling could have offered a clearer precedent when it comes to the power of religious freedom.
“But the outcome failed to do so,” she said. “It’s an issue that is relatively open and still murky.”
Rather than taking legal action, Reyes posted the winery’s original email on Facebook and in an LGBTQ Facebook group. She wasn’t expecting the interaction to reach the level of attention it did.
When local comedian and LGBTQ activist Nikki Levy spotted the post, she contacted the venue with a similar question. After receiving the same response, she rallied people on Facebook to send messages and publicly voice their criticism to the venue’s decision. By Thursday, the owner of the venue released a statement announcing an update to its policy and an apology for causing “anyone pain.”
“Viaggio Winery welcomes all couples, regardless of gender of sexual orientation, to our winery and wedding venue, including all wedding ceremonies. It is our hope that all will feel welcomed and respected at our winery, which has been our home since 2012,” wrote Teri Lawrence, one of the owners. “In recent communication with potential visitors, I tried to explore options for celebrations that would accommodate both my religious beliefs and the expectations of our community. I realize now that contrary to my intent, this was hurtful to the people involved.”
Reyes said that while she’s glad the venue has reversed course, the apology came too late. She and her fiancee are planning to find a different outdoor spot to marry.
“A lot of same-sex couples usually have courthouse weddings because of reasons like this — they’re afraid to get shut down by people because of religious beliefs,” Reyes said.
She’s happy that one less venue will make same-sex couples feel this way.
“I want the next person to know that they won’t get the same email.”