Star Barn venue bars gay weddings over owner’s religious beliefs

The historic structure in Lancaster County has become a premier wedding destination.

  • Ivey DeJesus, PennLive
Since this story published, tourism organization Discover Lancaster canceled its annual meeting that was scheduled at the venue and Lancaster Stands Up organized a protest calling for statewide nondiscrimination legislation.

(Elizabethtown) — Few central Pennsylvania destinations are as iconic as the Star Barn.

The historic structure — part of Stone Gables Estate — sits on a sprawling 275-acre scenic tract in Elizabethtown, surrounded by farmland, an orchard and vineyard. It has become a premier wedding destination.

Now, just in time for wedding season, the landmark venue is at the center of a newly minted debate over religious freedom and the anti-discrimination laws that protect the LGBTQ community.

Stone Gables, which runs both the Star Barn and Ironstone Ranch, has a policy barring reservations to same-gender weddings. Owner David Abel says they go against his religious convictions, which hold that marriage is between a man and a woman.

Recently, a retired Lancaster educator who has attended functions at the Star Barn, learned of the policy and took Stone Gables to task on Facebook.

That post by Steven Dinnocenti has ignited the latest installment in the perennial debate over religious liberties and equality for the LGBTQ community.

“Never again will I step on (their) grounds,” wrote Dinnocenti, who is gay and married. “What one does not know is the blatant discrimination they have towards the LGBTQ community. … I for one will not be attending any wedding or party at this venue knowing they discriminate against people.”

To date, the March 19 post has been shared more than 300 times and has garnered more than 600 comments.

“Discrimination is discrimination,” Dinnocenti told PennLive. “It’s like hate is hate. Anybody should be allowed to walk in anywhere to purchase anything. That is what a capitalistic society is. When you get the door slammed in your face it’s offensive. It’s wrong. You are saying our money is not as good as the next person’s.”

On Tuesday, in a phone interview with PennLive, Abel explained that his faith plays a critical role not only in his personal life but his business operations.

He said he does not tolerate discrimination against anyone, not in his business or in a public setting. He said he does not discriminate in his hiring practices nor his workplace. Abel has been in business 43 years and owns several business ventures, including DAS, a global automotive parts company.

“No persons will be discriminated against; however, we ask people to respect that we have core tenants in our faith and our beliefs and we cannot participate in any event that would be in contradiction to those core tenants – one of them being marriage, which has been biblically based for thousands of years as being between a man and a woman,” he said.

The social media buzz has arguably inducted the Star Barn into the roster of businesses that have garnered attention as a result of their policies on gay weddings or events – an industry that rakes in $72 billion annually.

Abel, a Roman Catholic who describes his wife, Tierney, as a “charismatic evangelical on fire,” cited his constitutional right and protection to religious freedom and the exercise thereof.

“The United States government is a government founded on the principles of religious freedom,” Abel said. “It was also founded as one nation under God not over God.”

Dinnocenti, an Episcopalian who was married to his husband by his father-in-law, a Mennonite pastor, rebuffs Abel’s arguments with equal measure.

“To anyone who wants to be a religious zealot I say look at the Constitution,” Dinnocenti said. “The bottom line is go back to the Constitution. The Bible should not be dictating the rule of the land.”

A murky federal law

That both sides of the debate cite constitutional guarantees underscores the nuanced, if not opaque language of the law.

“The right to gay marriage is clear. The right to refuse to serve those getting married at a gay wedding is less clear when they are a for-profit business,” said Sarah Barringer Gordon, a University of Pennsylvania law professor.

Twice in recent years, the U.S. Supreme Court has affirmed the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which sets a high standard in interpreting laws that might infringe on an individual’s religious freedom. The high court also guaranteed marriage equality.

Under the 1993 federal law, government entities must minimize the burden on individual religious practices when crafting laws that might infringe on those rights.

In the 2014 so-called Hobby Lobby ruling, the high court extended the protection to Christian-owned corporations that might refuse to provide services because they conflict with their beliefs.

In writing for the 5-4 majority opinion in Hobby Lobby, Justice Samuel Alito argued that the government could provide women access to contraception without infringing on a business owner’s religious views.

Alito wrote that the ruling applied to the contraception mandate and did not “provide a shield for employers who might cloak illegal discrimination as a religious practice.”

Then came the 2018 Colorado bakery case to further muddy matters.

In ruling in favor of Jack Phillips, the Colorado bakery owner who cited his own religious objection in refusing to bake a wedding cake for a gay couple, the Supreme Court re-affirmed the protections guaranteed under the federal law.

Sean Simmers / PennLive

The Star Barn Village, part of the Stone Gables Estate, has become a premier wedding destination.

The high court explained it ruled in favor of the Masterpiece Cakeshop owner in part because the state had demonstrated clear anti-religious bias in handling the case.

But the case was complicated by a host of factors, including the debate over whether a cake for a private celebration was “speech” or “free exercise of religion” at all. (The Colorado cake preceded the high court’s ruling on gay marriage. That further complicated the case.)

Justice Anthony Kennedy, who wrote the majority opinion, made clear that religious beliefs do not justify discrimination against LGBTQ individuals, but the court had provided little guidance.

“It was nothing very clear,” Gordon said.

The marriage equality law as well as the religious restoration law were set at the federal level. The finer arguments involving gay marriage and religious freedoms remain for the most part a domain of states rights.

No doubt, the religious freedom debate has become a political football, part of the culture war and the backlash against the federal marriage equality law.

“So it’s different for everyone fighting this out in terms of constitutional rights on both sides and really we don’t have a clear legal mandate so everyone marches out further on the fringes,” Gordon said. “It is really an ugly situation.”

Does Abel in this case have the protection under the law to exclude same-sex weddings in his bookings? “It’s not clear that he has,” Gordon said. “The law is unsettled. It has not been worked out.”

The barometer is ever shifting.

In March, the Supreme Court handed a defeat to a bed and breakfast owner in Hawaii who turned away a lesbian couple citing her own Christian beliefs. The high court declined to hear the case after a lower court ruled that the bed and breakfast violated a state anti-discrimination law.

A strikingly similar case to the Colorado baker case – this one out of Oregon – is slated to go before the court. In this case, a bakery refused to make a wedding cake for a lesbian couple for religious reasons.

To further complicate matters: Pennsylvania does not extend anti-discrimination laws to members of the LGBTQ community.

Venues with different views

In the fickle world of wedding decisions, one denied booking at a venue is bound to result in a booking at another.

Maureen Raezer is the owner and president of Riverdale Manor and Thyme and Seasons Catering, a Lancaster County wedding destination. She has in recent years served a growing list of gay and lesbian clients who turned to her services after being denied services at the Star Barn.

Raezer subscribes to the principles of inclusive economics and says she has seen an uptick in gay and lesbian clients since the Supreme Court struck down the Defense of Marriage Act.

“That is what it means to be a social entrepreneur as well as inclusive economics,” Raezer said. “It means everyone needs. You can’t turn down someone who has the ability to pay you for your business….It’s unacceptable.”

She worries that the wedding industry is the only sector of the U.S. economy that condones this so-called selective business policy against the LGBTQ community.

“It’s not like you go into Fulton Bank and they say, ‘I‘m not going to work with you because of your sexual orientation,’” she said.

Raezer has severed ties with vendors who object to her inclusive wedding reservation policy.

“I think they see it as they are somehow condoning gay marriage by participating in it,” she said. “I‘m not sure how selling somebody a wedding cake does that. If I sold cookies to someone, why would I care what their sexual orientation was?”

Rosie Rohrer, owner of Rosie’s Creative Cakes, one of Star Barn’s preferred vendors, says she appreciates both sides of the argument.

Her Manheim business has catered to gay and lesbian couples as well as couples from a wide range of ethnicities and religious beliefs. She said she has not denied anyone her wedding cake service.

“I don’t want to discriminate at same time I think there is a fine line,” Rohrer said. “You have people who say I‘m not going to support that small business because of their beliefs, well it can work the other way. You have small businesses that say I don’t want to patronize this or that because I don’t believe in their ethics or beliefs. I think it becomes a personal issue for a lot of people.”

Raezer, whose six-acre riverfront property is fast becoming a preferred wedding venue for couples from Philadelphia, said business is thriving, in large part because of her inclusive policy.

“That is the future of the economics. It’s diversity,” she said. “The more people you do business with, the more business you will have. That business model of excluding people financially makes no sense to me.”

Social media factor

With social media increasingly setting the national agenda, reviews of wedding venues, like so many other destinations, often can make or break a business. In the past, though, wedding websites and magazines widely restricted who could post reviews.

These days, a site such as The Knot, one of the go-to sources for all things related to weddings, will waive any restrictions on who can write a review if the topic is discrimination.

Melissa Bach, a spokeswoman The Knot and Weddingwire, said the sites have a clear policy of inclusion founded on legal and moral principles.

“We’ve created a marketplace and community on our site where we do not permit discrimination of any kind, by, to, or against our consumers, vendors, guests, or employees, and reserve the right to take actions, up to and including removal from the site, in response to any discrimination,” she said.

She invites anyone with knowledge of an act of discrimination by any person on the The Knot or Weddingwire platform — including wedding pros — to submit a report for investigation by the site’s team to reviewinquiry@xogrp.com.

The Abels make a clear declaration that as business owners they will abide by specific core values.

They explain in their core values that as business owners, they are stewards and that everything they do with or on the property “must bring honor, glory, and praise to God.”

He reiterated that neither he nor his business discriminates against anyone, but he respects the fact that others have different beliefs and that they are as entitled to those beliefs as he is to his.

“We do no label people with a letter or a title,” said Abel. He and his wife have 12 adopted children from all corners of the world, including Haiti and Nigeria.

“We believe all humanity is created in the image and likeness of God. We do not discriminate against people. People might have a belief that two men and two women can get married. It is a faith belief that contradicts my faith belief. I respect that, however they need to respect what the constitution protects and that is my ability to say, ‘I apologize but you cannot hold an event that is contradictory to my religious belief.’”

He said he does not make any money out of the venue complex but that all net profits support Brittany’s Hope, a nonprofit organization that helps abandoned children around the world.

Abel characterized what is being said about him and his business on social media as false accusations.

“They discriminated and attacked me and persecuted and condemned my wife and I and our faith and beliefs, which we put out there” he said. “That rhetoric is wrong and it is not accurate. They never sought to understand our hearts, to understand why we can’t go against our beliefs.”

Dinnocenti said he uploaded his post against the Star Barn to expose the venue, “for what I feel is a deceitful practice. Unless you are looking for it, you won’t know about it.”

“I‘m tired of discrimination and tired of people thinking they can do what they want throwing the Bible out there,” he said. “No. It’s discrimination.”

Gordon, the law professor, says it’s only a matter of time before the issue is back before the high court.

“It just doesn’t stop,” she said. “The questions keep coming and they are important even if they do not have huge financial stakes, they are important to people.”

 

PennLive and The Patriot-News are partners with PA Post.

Up Next
The Context

Grand jury report fallout, 2.0