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Trolley owner ends wedding business rather than serve same sex couples

By Erin Cox and — Baltimore Sun,

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 crosshairs 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.

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 whatever 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 and Anne Arundel County Conference and Visitors Bureau.

Grubbs said he expects to post a full explanation on his company’s Web site by Jan. 1, and he confirmed that he sent an e-mail 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.”

In his message, Grubbs suggested that 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’s e-mail to Annapolis news Web sites 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.”

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.

Gosnell, who said he has not met Grubbs, added that the trolley company’s decision on same-sex weddings does not necessarily reveal Grubbs’s 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.”

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