BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (WIAT) – Emily Valdez had fallen in love: with her fiancé, of course, but with a wedding venue, too. She’d scoured the internet looking at photos and reading reviews. Eventually, she’d found it – a venue that fit her family’s needs – a place she’d be proud to make a lifelong commitment to her partner. She scheduled and attended a tour, and she loved the venue even more.
Then, Swann Lake Stables provided Valdez with a contract to sign. On its last page, just before the signature line, was a provision Emily Valdez said she was shocked to read.
The owners of Swann Lake Stables, a wedding and event venue in Birmingham, do not allow same-sex weddings on their property according to the contract. Valdez, who is in a heterosexual relationship, said she won’t get married at a venue that discriminates against others. Clients also shouldn’t find out about the policy in the final line of a contract many may not even read, Valdez said.
Marjorie Jones, one of the venue’s owners, said that policy is meant to “honor God.” Jones said the policy would be added to the venue’s website. The policy, however, which may violate Birmingham’s non-discrimination ordinance, will remain in place, Jones said.
A special place
Emily Valdez said she probably went through 50 websites before she came across Swann Lake Stables.
“It looked beautiful from the pictures,” she said. “This was one of the few venues I found close to Birmingham that has sort of a farm feel – just open land.”
When she arrived for a tour, she felt her guide was warm and transparent.
“I was asking about whether different parts of the venue were wheelchair accessible,” she said. “And they were being really honest about those sorts of things.”
By the end of the tour, Valdez and her partner thought they were finished searching for a venue.
“I felt it was a special place,” she said.
“I was furious”
Two weeks ago, Emily Valdez reached out to Swann Lake Stables to confirm a date for her wedding ceremony. The date she’d wanted was already booked, but she didn’t care. She took the only October date the venue had available.
“We loved the venue so much we were willing to just have a different date,” she said.
The venue sent over the contract, and Valdez prepared to sign it. Then she got to its final line.
“The owners of Swann Lake are operating this venue based on sincerely held religious beliefs that marriage was created by God intentionally between a man and woman and therefore same-sex marriages will not be allowed on this property,” the contract said.
Valdez said she was furious.
“It shouldn’t be legal,” Valdez said. “It’s just so unfair.”
Together, she and her partner decided they would have to find another venue. Finding out about Swann Lake’s policy was a logistical setback, Valdez said, and the policy itself broke her heart.
“We’ve been dreaming about it all year,” she said. “We built the wedding around the venue. So it’s just frustrating to start over.”
“That was God’s plan”
The policy prohibiting same-sex marriages at Swann Lake Stables isn’t new.
After hearing about Emily Valdez’s frustration, Marjorie Jones, co-owner of Swann Lake Stables, reached out to Valdez to explain the venue’s policy.
“I’m sorry for the fact that you felt surprised at the end of your journey about someone not allowing same-sex weddings,” Jones told Valdez. “This is something we really struggled about for the years we’ve been doing this.”
Jones acknowledged it may be difficult to be confronted with the policy after becoming invested in having a wedding at the venue. She said Swann Lake would add their “statement of faith” regarding the policy on the venue’s website. Jones said Swann Lake tries its best to prevent situations where the policy comes as a surprise to potential clients.
“So we tell them before they come for the tour if it looks like it’s not a man and a woman,” she said.
In those cases, Jones said she or another staff member reaches out to the couple directly.
“I call the people and I say, you know, we are of the faith that marriage is between a man and a woman, that God created it that way,” Jones said. “So that’s why we’re sticking with our faith. This isn’t a same-sex venue.”
44 years ago, Jones said when she and her husband were dating, he took her to the property that would become Swann Lake Stables.
“The priority for my husband and I when we bought this place was that we had to be upfront about our faith,” she said. “This is a place we feel like God gave us.”
Jones also explained that her view on marriage related to what she views as a biblical mandate to “be fruitful and multiply.”
“So if the world is going to go on, people are going to have to have babies,” Jones explained. “You need a man and a woman. Two women are not going to have a baby. Two men are not going to have a baby.”
Valdez told Jones that because of prior health issues, she herself may be unable to have a child.
“We’ve learned that what doctors say is not necessarily true,” Jones responded. “There are doctors you could go to that might encourage you to try it.”
Discrimination, Jones said, is not the aim of the venue’s policy. When Valdez told Jones she believed the policy to be discriminatory, Jones pushed back.
“You know, it sounds that way,” she said. “But it’s based on your faith. There are plenty of places where same-sex couples can get married, but that is not who we are. I’m not one of those discriminating people who won’t be around gay people or any kind of diversity. I grew up in the sixties, and my mother was a friend of Martin Luther King.”
CBS 42 sent Swann Lake questions related to their policy on same-sex weddings. The owners responded to each question, save one: whether they believed they were discriminating against couples based on their sexual orientation or gender identity.
Discrimination or devotion?
Emily Valdez doesn’t think Swann Lake’s religious views should trump the rights of same-sex couples to have access to places of public accommodation. Discrimination like that in this case, she said, should be illegal, and nothing in her conversation with Jones changed her mind on that.
In 2017, the City of Birmingham became the first city in Alabama to pass a non-discrimination ordinance that prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation.
All individuals in Birmingham, regardless of their sexual orientation, have “the right to the full enjoyment of any of the accommodations, advantages, facilities, or privileges of any place of public resort, accommodation, assemblage, or amusement,” the ordinance says.
The only religious exception to the ordinance, according to its text, applies only to entities that employ individuals of a particular religion to perform religious activities.
Governmental prohibitions on discrimination have faced hurdles in court over the last few years, however. At the federal and state level, courts have curbed the authority of state officials to punish discriminatory behavior and practices, particularly in cases where religious interests are at stake.
CBS 42 reached out to the city officials about whether Swann Lake’s policy violates city ordinances and how many fines the city has issued under the new nondiscrimination provisions. We have not yet heard back.
Seeking inclusion in the South
Ashley Peters can understand Emily Valdez’s anger and frustration. For years, Peters has helped same-sex couples navigate the “wedding industrial complex,” guiding them as they jump through hoops that can all-too-often include venues and vendors who refuse to serve same-sex couples.
Peters, who began her wedding hair and makeup business in 2016, said that it can be difficult for LGBTQ+ couples to find inclusive businesses to help make their wedding day special.
That’s why she created a Facebook group called “Inclusive Vendors of Alabama.” A version of a modern-day “green book” for the LGBTQ+ community, the group serves several purposes, including providing a platform that can help couples of all sorts connect with inclusive venues and vendors.
“The thought was that everyone in this group is already checked off – they’re good,” Peters said of the group, which her husband calls The Good Book. “So they don’t have to worry about that. The most you should have to worry about is which flavor of cake, just like any other couple.”
Vendors can also benefit from groups like Peters’ because they can connect with clients and other vendors who share similar values. Mary Catherine Fehr, a prominent wedding photographer in Birmingham, said she has never photographed a wedding at Swann Lake because of its discriminatory policy. Groups like Peter’s provide Fehr and those like her with a connection to clients and information that may not have been readily available before.
Ashley Peters encourages couples trying to find inclusive venues and vendors to check out the Facebook group as well as other resources like the Equally Wed directory.
Peters said that in the end, while she believes policies like Swann Lake Stables’ should be illegal, the law can’t require warm, caring, inclusive service. But the power of profit, Peters said, is a strong motivator.
“The best thing the public and the wedding community can do is not to give them business,” Peters said. “Will they change? Probably not, but at least then there’s some form of justice.”
Emily Valdez has already put Peters’ suggestion into practice. She said she won’t have her ceremony at the venue and wouldn’t recommend the venue to others.
“I feel called to radically love and support all people,” Valdez told Marjorie Jones about her own spiritual beliefs. “Because everybody is valuable – just as they are, just for being human. Everybody should have equal access.”