The national debate about how to balance religious conscience protections and gay equality flared in the large, mostly liberal Washington, D.C., suburb of Montgomery County Friday, when Dani Tsakounis tried to help her brother hire Ultrasound Deejays for a party. An owner of the business told Tsakounis he would not provide the DJ because Tsakounis’s brother, a Silver Spring therapist, is married to another man and the birthday party they are hosting is for their 60-year-old roommate, who is also gay.
“I just said, ‘We won’t be able to do it, we’re a Christian organization and it would go against our faith, I’m sorry,’” Michael Lampiris, co-owner of Ultrasound Deejays, said Friday.
Tom Tsakounis, 46, was so upset when his sister told him that he posted the news on his neighborhood listserv, prompting calls of sympathy from neighbors. He also registered a complaint with the Montgomery County Human Rights Commission, which hears cases of alleged discrimination.
Maryland state law has banned discrimination based on sexual orientation in public accommodation — which includes businesses “offering goods, services, entertainment” the law says — since 2001. But the question of whether such laws infringe on the rights of religious conservatives, however, has received increased attention as more gay equality advocates have stepped up to file complaints and religious conservatives have argued that their conscience rights are being violated.
In this case, both Lampiris and Tsakounis were surprised the issue erupted – but for different reasons.
Tom Tsakounis said he had never been denied services in his life because he is gay and was floored to see it happen in Montgomery County – a liberal suburb where he has lived for 15 years. Lampiris, 54, has been living in the county for 30 years and said he had never heard of the law forbidding such discrimination.
Ultrasound Deejays, which he founded in the 1980s with his brother, has a written company policy stating “we will not be involved in any event involving homosexual celebration or activity. We follow biblical morality.”
The company policy states that they are a “family friendly” firm and won’t play vulgar music, tolerate provocative dancing or be involved with strippers, “fortune tellers, psychics, or magicians.”
“We will always try to provide a bright, entertaining, wholesome and fun deejay style where no one is left out,” the site says. “Let us work together to keep America clean and good!”
Hearing his sister tell what happened, Tsakounis said, and reading the Ultrasound policy “made me feel like I got hit in the stomach. You feel like: ‘C’mon, in my neighborhood?’ But: Wow, yes — in my neighborhood.”
Lampiris sounded unconcerned about a possible legal challenge. Their firm, which has at times had a roster of 40 DJ-contractors, has turned down other events, he said, such as when a teacher wouldn’t promise to work to stop raunchy dancing among students, or when he found out a bridal party included several lesbians.
Dani Tsakounis and Lampiris characterized their conversation the same way: Friendly at the start, with Lampiris telling her he could send a DJ and then asking for a few more details in order to find a good match of a DJ. Once she told him it was a 60th, Lampiris joked that she sounded too young to have a peer who was 60 — was this her father? That led to her describing that the man having the birthday was a long-ago partner of her brother, who was now married to another man. The three now live in the same house.
“I said: ‘Are they together in a union?’ And she said ‘Yes.’ It took me back and I said: ‘I don’t know if anyone would want to do it, I just don’t know,'” Lampiris recalled saying. Then he told Tsakounis his objection was religious. “She said ‘Forget it,’ and hung up.”
In this case, Lampiris said he had never heard of a related law, “but it’s important for us to make a stand. We don’t want to go against the law, but we also sometimes are called to do that if it goes against your faith. To me it would be like a synagogue having to cater to a neo-Nazi party or black DJ having to do a KKK dance,” he said. Gay clients don’t pose a “physical threat – it’s a conscience thing, and conscience is very important for everybody. In fact, I think it’s the most important thing.”
Jer Welter, managing attorney of FreeState Legal, which provides legal advocacy for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people in Maryland, said several dozen cases like this come into county and state civil rights offices each year and are mostly resolved through mediation. Some have been litigated, he said. Most cases of discrimination never get filed as complaints, he said.
However U.S. courts are still hashing out a balance between religious conscience protections and protection from discrimination. One legal expert who specializes in religious liberty, but didn’t want to speak by name about the DJ case without knowing more details, said courts have looked at questions such as: What are a business’ general policies and culture? What kind of specific activity were they asked to engage in? For example, the attorney said, there might be a difference between simply refusing to serve a gay couple and refusing to work at an event that is centered on “celebrating homosexuality.”
He noted that in April a Kentucky Circuit Court ruled that a Christian T-shirt maker had the right to refuse to make gay pride festival shirts.
What will happen next wasn’t clear. Efforts to reach the state and county civil rights offices late Friday were not successful.
Tsakounis said his sister and other friends were trying to help him and his husband find another DJ for the party for their friend– who is Tom’s long-ago boyfriend and now their roommate. They had never considered any potential discrimination issue and the space booked for the party, which is in August, is the Knights of Columbus Hall, which is a Catholic Church-affiliated building, he said.
After the Friday incident with Lampiris, Tsakounis said he left a voicemail with the Knights.
“Now I’m really nervous. What if they say no? My sister said, ‘I’d never walk into a Knights of Columbus hall and say: I’m straight, I’m having a straight party.’ We just haven’t had to think about these things.”
Lampiris said he hopes the issue won’t become a standoff in any way. But if it did, “we would make a stand if the good Lord is willing,” he said, citing the New Testament book of Acts: “We ought to obey God rather than men.”
Washington Post researcher Magda Jean-Louis contributed to this report.