Opposed to same-sex marriage, company ends wedding business

An Annapolis company whose old-fashioned trolleys are iconic in the city's wedding scene has abandoned the nuptial industry rather than serve same-sex couples.

The owner of Discover Annapolis Tours said he decided to walk away from $50,000 in annual revenue instead of compromising his Christian convictions when same-sex marriages become legal in Maryland in less than a week. And he has urged prospective clients to lobby state lawmakers for a religious exemption for wedding vendors.

While most wedding businesses across the country embraced the chance to serve same-sex couples, a small minority has struggled to balance religious beliefs against business interests.

Wedding vendors elsewhere who refused to accommodate same-sex couples have faced discrimination lawsuits — and lost. Legal experts said Discover Annapolis Tours sidesteps legal trouble by avoiding all weddings.

"If they're providing services to the public, they can't discriminate who they provide their services to," said Glendora Hughes, general counsel for the Maryland Commission on Civil Rights. The commission enforces public accommodation laws that prohibit businesses from discriminating on the basis of race, sexual orientation and other characteristics.

The trolley company's decision, publicized by a straight groom offended by what he called "repressive bigotry," offers a snapshot of a local business navigating a new landscape in Maryland's wedding industry, and leaving it behind for a competitor to swoop in.

The head of the Maryland Wedding Professionals Association said the trolley company is the second vendor to refuse business over the state's same-sex marriage law, which voters upheld in November. The Maryland clergyman who led opposition to same-sex marriage called the trolley company's choice to abandon profits on principle "gutsy" and predicted that more businesses would quietly follow suit.

"That's a bold and noble statement," said Derek McCoy, executive director of the Maryland Marriage Alliance. "The other option would have been just to become a legal case."

Frank Schubert, the political strategist who ran campaigns against same-sex marriage in Maryland and three other states this year, said opponents predicted collateral damage from legalizing same-sex unions.

"This is exactly what happens," Schubert said, adding that religious liberty is "right in the cross hairs of this debate. … The law doesn't protect people of faith. It simply doesn't."

Schubert pointed to a handful of other examples publicized in news reports across the country of wedding vendors sued for refusing to accommodate a same-sex ceremony: a pair of Vermont innkeepers, a New Jersey church group and a New Mexico wedding photographer.

A Christian conservative group financed an appeal in the case in New Mexico — where same-sex marriages are not recognized but, as in Maryland, "public accommodation" laws prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation. A lesbian couple tried to hire the photographer for their commitment ceremony, but the photographer's attorneys argued that artists have a constitutional right to refuse to endorse a message they do not support, according to the Religion News Service. Two New Mexico courts have sided with the lesbian couple who sued, and the state's highest court agreed to hear the case.

In Maryland, the gay-rights group Equality Maryland said the trolley company's decision appears to be an isolated case of a business owner exercising his rights.

"As long as he doesn't discriminate against other people, he's free to do what ever he wants to do, including withdrawing his business from the industry," executive director Carrie Evans said.

Discover Annapolis Tours owner Matt Grubbs declined repeated requests to discuss the move, beyond acknowledging its economic impact to his business, which also operates historic tours endorsed by the Annapolis & Anne Arundel County Conference & Visitors Bureau.

Grubbs said he expects to post a full explanation on his company's website by Jan. 1, and confirmed he sent an email to prospective client Chris Belkot last month that said "we used to do weddings until recently. But we're a Christian-owned business, and we are not able to lend support to gay marriages. And as a public accommodation, we cannot discriminate between gay or straight couples, so we had to stop doing all wedding transportation."

Grubbs' message went on to suggest Maryland residents contact their lawmakers to "request they amend the new marriage law to allow an exemption for religious conviction for the layperson in the pew. The law exempts my minister from doing same-sex weddings, and the Knights of Columbus don't have to rent out their hall for a gay wedding reception, but somehow my religious convictions don't count for anything."

Belkot, 31, forwarded Grubbs' email to Annapolis news websites and fired off a response to Grubbs that read, in part, "It is your right to run your business any way you see fit, but let's be honest here, you drive a trolley up and down a street. Not exactly God's work."

Belkot had taken his future wife from their New Jersey home to Annapolis for their first vacation together, betting the historic downtown that charmed him on family trips would enchant his girlfriend, too. Years later, the couple wanted to use Grubbs' trolleys to shuttle wedding guests, but discovered that despite a page showing smiling brides and grooms, Discover Annapolis Tours had opted out.

And while the couple still plans to hold their March 9 wedding in Annapolis, the experience tainted the romantic getaway image they had formed.

"It really kind of downed our opinion of a town that we loved," Belkot said. "This isn't a crime against humanity, but it really is bigotry."

Owners can often face business decisions that conflict with their beliefs, according to a consultant who works with Christian businesses.

"When they're confronted with something that they feel is against the Bible and against God's words, our first advice is to think through the process to determine if it really is against your core values," said Ken Gosnell, president of the C12 Group of Central Maryland, a Christian business consulting group.

While Grubbs' conflict might be uncommon, Gosnell said businesses of all varieties constantly evaluate whether their work serves a mission.

"Many businesses often quit selling a product or offering something, often because it no longer matches the core values of their company," Gosnell said. "If it doesn't match their core values, whatever it is, then they should quit doing it."

Christian businesses, he said, frequently choose to offer better employee benefits and to follow ethical business practices because of their beliefs, though sometimes it also means taking risks.

Chick-Fil-A president Dan Carthy's public statements against same-sex marriage brought both backlash and huge crowds this year as patronizing or boycotting the fast-food chain became a political statement.

Gosnell pointed to the national crafting retailer Hobby Lobby, whose evangelical owners in September sued the Obama administration over a health care provision that employees' insurance plans cover emergency contraception.

Gosnell, who said he has not met Grubbs, added that the trolley company's decision on same-sex weddings does not necessarily reveal Grubbs' feelings about gay people or transporting them to other events.

"It could be that it's not so much that he's against people, so much as he's against a policy or law that has been put in place," Gosnell said. "That is not abnormal for any business owner to take a position about any law that affects them."

Legal experts said the state law forbidding discrimination against sexual orientation has been on the books since 2001. Back then, the General Assembly added sexual orientation to the list of protected classes that already included race, gender, disability and marital status. Business owners can no more refuse a trolley for a same-sex wedding than they can refuse to serve an African-American at a lunch counter.

Towson Attorney Mark F. Scurti, an adjunct professor at the University of Baltimore's law school, served on the task force that recommended the General Assembly extend protection to gays.

"The things the law was meant to prevent is the very thing this gentlemen is trying to do: say, because of my personal beliefs, 'I'm not going to let my company be rented out for gay weddings,'" Scurti said. "Since 2001, if a gay couple went to him — take out the word marriage — and said, 'We want to rent your trolley because we want to have a celebration of our domestic partnership,' he still had to accommodate them."

Grubbs' trolleys, with their interior lighting and quaint feel, had nearly become a staple in Annapolis' wedding scene, wedding planners and photographers said.

"You will see trolleys every Saturday in Annapolis, and most of them will have a bride," said Mike Busada, owner of Mike B Photography. "Fifty percent of the weddings I do in Annapolis have a trolley. … Someone else will come in and fill that niche. There's definitely a demand for it."

For more than a decade, American Limousines in Baltimore has been filling part of that niche as the main trolley competitor, sending the company's two trolleys to Annapolis events and even helping Grubbs with larger events, said company owner Gary Day.

"I don't think he knew that I was gay," Day said of Grubbs, whom he talked with after Grubbs decided to leave the wedding industry. The topic of Day's sexual orientation and his partner of many years never came up.

"I just find it baffling," Day said. "You're providing a service. A doctor doesn't have to like you to take care of you."

Day had considered selling one of the trolleys but now plans to keep it for another year, hoping to fill the new vacuum in Annapolis' wedding trolley scene.