PAXTON — Due to an unspecified conflict, Ford County Circuit Court Judge Matt Fitton has recused himself from presiding over a lawsuit filed by the Illinois Attorney General’s Office against a bed-and-breakfast west of Paxton.
Court records show that on Feb. 21, the civil case was referred to the chief judge of the 11th Judicial Circuit, Mark Fellheimer, who reassigned the case to Associate Judge Robert M. Travers of Livingston County.
Last October, then-Attorney General Lisa Madigan filed the lawsuit in Ford County Circuit Court against the TimberCreek Bed & Breakfast over its failure to comply with an order issued in 2016 by the Illinois Human Rights Commission, which determined the B&B discriminated against a same-sex couple based on their sexual orientation.
The order directed the B&B to pay damages to the couple, Todd and Mark Wathen of Tuscola, for refusing to host their civil union ceremony there in 2011. The B&B’s co-owner, Jim Walder, cited his religious beliefs for not allowing the civil union ceremony at his facility.
The B&B was ordered to pay the Wathens $15,000 each in damages, $50,000 in attorneys’ fees and more than $1,200 in additional costs. The B&B was also ordered to cease and desist from discriminating on the basis of sexual orientation and to allow the Wathens to celebrate their civil union at the B&B within one year.
The attorney general’s office is asking the court to order the B&B to comply with the order.
Before any court hearing was held on the lawsuit, the B&B’s attorney, Jason Craddock of Monee, filed a motion to dismiss it — or, instead, suspend all court proceedings.
When that motion is considered by the court remains to be seen. No court date had been set as of Thursday.
In his motion, Craddock noted that he anticipates the Illinois Supreme Court granting the B&B’s appeal of the order because "constitutional questions have arisen" related to the freedom of speech and freedom to exercise religion.
Craddock noted that the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled in two cases "in a manner favorable" to Walder’s B&B, "and such rulings are likely to result in the Illinois Human Rights Commission’s ruling against (the B&B) being reversed, which nullifies the $81,000 judgment (the attorney general’s office) seeks to enforce here."
In one of those cases, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the Colorado Civil Rights Commission violated a baker’s freedom to exercise their religion when the commission ruled the baker violated a public-accommodations law by refusing to make a wedding cake for a same-sex wedding.
The U.S. Supreme Court later applied the result of that case to a "factually similar case," Craddock noted, when the court sent back a discrimination case involving a florist to a lower court "for further consideration in light of" the court’s earlier decision in favor of the baker.
"The facts of both cases are remarkably similar to the facts in the (B&B’s) case," Craddock noted. "In all three cases, state anti-discrimination agencies punished Christian business owners for their faith-based objections to facilitating ceremonies for romantic unions they sincerely believe to be sinful according to the Bible. And in all three cases, the state agencies in question treated these Christian business owners with hostility toward their sincerely held religious beliefs."
In the B&B’s case, Craddock said, the constitutional issues were raised before the Illinois Human Rights Commission "but were not addressed."
In 2017, the Fourth District of the Illinois Appellate Court "failed to address" the constitutional issues, as well, before "wrongly dismissing" the B&B’s appeal of the commission’s order "due to an alleged late filing of a motion to extend time to file a brief," Craddock said.
Last December, a slew of attorneys representing the Wathens — including those from the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois — responded to Craddock’s motion by filing a motion to intervene.