Tennessee wedding venue agrees to host same-sex ceremonies

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Mint Springs Farm, the private ceremony venue south of Nashville that made headlines yesterday after telling two Tennessee Iraq war veterans that they would not be able to hold their commitment ceremony on their grounds, has announced a new policy this morning.

After meeting with Chris Sanders, Executive Director of the Tennessee Equality Project (TEP), the owners at Mint Springs Farm released the following statement:

"As owners of Mint Springs Farm we have had time to regroup and reflect. We have reached out to the community      and started a dialogue with Tennessee Equality Project. The Executive Director, Chris Sanders was able to meet with us. In order to move forward we have decided to change our policy. We will offer commitment ceremonies for any future couples that have a legal license from other states or countries. We also want to broaden this offer to include couples who simply want a commitment ceremony with no intention of obtaining legal marriage license.This will be our policy moving forward, it will remain true to all future prospective clients."  

"We’re just delighted that they made this shift and we think people across Tennessee can make this shift if we have more of the conversations,” said Sanders. 

The policy change came after Anthony Wilfert and his partner Brian Blas, who met 9 years ago when in the United States Army and stationed at Fort Campbell, were denied the use of the venue.

Wilfert and his partner toured the Mint Springs Farm's venue in early April. During the tour, their guide commented on the venue's wedding planners and being able to discuss colors and more when their brides joined them, according to Wilfert. "At that time I specifically made clear that [they] needed to know that it was us having the ceremony- meaning me and my partner," Wilfert explained. "I told [him] that I needed to know if that was an issue before we went any further in the tour and obviously before we went any further in the planning process with the venue to which he explained that it was not an issue."

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After continuing the tour of the venue, Wilfert and Blas were given the contact information for the venue's Office Manager and told to contact to set up an official tour of the grounds whereas any venue-specific questions could be answered. Wilfert acknowledged immediate contact with the Office Manager in which he was told they would send over pricing packages, in order to make sure that the venue's options would meet the couple's budget and expectations. "That’s where we just fell off the radar," Wilfert lamented. "I never heard another word."

After following up with the venue by phone and email, Wilfert received an email from Mint Springs Farm co-owner Lynn Whisenant. The email read: 

My name is Lynn Whisenant and I am one of the owners of Mint Springs Farm. Unfortunately, until same sex marriage is legal in the state of Tennessee, we cannot participate in this ceremony at our venue.
I wish we could help, I truly do, but our hands are tied on the situation.

All the best to the both of you,

Sincerely,
Lynn Whisenant
Co Owner

Wilfert says he felt disheartned by the response. "I personally believe in a business’s right to refuse services to anyone unless it’s a protected class of some kind. However I wish the business would have been up front with that to begin with. Had [someone] said they didn’t believe in same-sex rights or same-sex ceremonies or same-sex civil unions and for those reasons I’m sorry but we cannot offer you our space, I would’ve accepted that at face value. Sure, I would hope that they would be more open-minded but we would've taken our search elsewhere but that’s not what they did." 

Wilfert and Blas first took their story to the airwaves with an exclusive spot that aired on Channel 4 WSMV this weekend (see below).

 

WSMV Channel 4

 

In a statement to WSMV, Mint Springs Farm owner said:

“We are deeply sorry that a staff member of ours was unaware of our policy and truly understand the disappointment of this couple. Our employee was simply trying to be helpful to this couple who visited our venue after hours. We only do weddings at our facility. When we went into this endeavor, we knew that due to the nature of our business, this situation would arise. However, Tennessee law currently states that same-sex marriage is prohibited by the Tennessee State Constitution. Because we only host weddings, we cannot violate Tennessee law.”

So now what?

So would a venue break Tennessee state law by hosting a same-sex couples wedding? The short answer is no. The longer answer, specific to this event, includes understanding that this is unknown territory for many venues and businesses across Tennessee. 

In Tennessee alone, we've had our own game of legal ping-pong whereas plaintiffs involved in a legal case challenging Tennessee's recognition of their out-of-state marriages have gone from not being recognized to being recognized to again not being recognized, all in the past 6 weeks. During that time, one of the couples gave birth to their first child and became the first family in Tennessee to have two mothers listed on a child's birth certificate and now a ruling against the couple could invalidate that birth certificate. Confused, yet?

With this sort of legal play happening, it is easy to imagine that those who are not affected by its outcomes and even some who are, do not have all of the information they need to make informed decisions.

I myself have made plenty of decisions before I gathered all of the necessary information and many times I have had to back peddle with apologies. Sometimes I've felt the pressure to make a decision and regrettably done so prematurely, other times I can admit to just being ignorant and not thinking a situation all the way through.

With an avalanche of news stories about wedding businesses refusing to serve LGBT customers, the easy assumption would be that Mint Springs Farm was refusing service only because it didn't want to host a same-sex couple. But when is life that easy? Our own struggle for equality in Tennessee is showing that it's not.

Following the initial reports, the comment sections of various outlets' stories and the Mint Springs Farm Facebook page were flooded with comments of support and some not-so-nice words as well.

After being made aware of the situation between Wilfert/Blas and Mint Springs Farm, TEP responded by encouraging its members to write letters to Mint Springs Farm. In doing so, they requested that the letters "be clear, be focused, and civil (meaning no name calling or profanity)" and to remember that "the goal is to persuade and make clear the injustice." 

Posting its own letter as an example, it was TEP Executive Director Chris Sanders who went to Mint Springs Farm himself yesterday to facilitate the conversation which resulted in a policy change at the venue.

So is it true that you get more flies with honey than vinegar? I've yet to perform the experiment but the actions of TEP and others including Ijpe DeKoe, a former veteran himself and one of the plaintiffs in the current Tennessee legal battle who also wrote a letter to Mint Springs, illustrate that, if it was indeed hate, fighting with love (and logic) is the better way to win.