BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (WIAT) – Emily Valdez had fallen in love: with her fiance, of course, but with a wedding venue, too. She’d scoured the internet looking at photos and reading reviews. Eventually, she found it. She says after a tour of Swann Lake Stables, she loved the venue even more.

Then they gave her a contract to sign. On its last page, just before the signature line, was a provision she says shocked her.

The owners of Swann Lake Stables, a wedding and event venue in Birmingham, Alabama, doesn’t perform same-sex weddings on their property, according to the contract. Valdez, who’s in a heterosexual relationship, says she won’t get married at a venue that discriminates against others.

The bride-to-be also says clients shouldn’t find out about the policy in the final line of the contract.

‘It shouldn’t be legal’

The contract’s final line reads: “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.”

Valdez says she was furious. 

“It shouldn’t be legal,” Valdez said. “It’s just so unfair.”

Together, she and her partner decided they’d have to find another venue — a logistical setback she says broke her heart.

“We’ve been dreaming about it all year,” she says. “We built the wedding around the venue. So it’s just frustrating to start over.”

‘This isn’t a same-sex venue’

The policy prohibiting same-sex marriages at Swann Lake Stables isn’t new. Marjorie Jones, co-owner of Swann Lake Stables, reached out to Valdez to explain the venue’s policy. Jones said the policy aims to “honor God.”

“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 says Swann Lake would add their “statement of faith” regarding the policy on the venue’s website, as they typically try to avoid situations like this.

“We tell them before they come for the tour — if it looks like it’s not a man and a woman,” Jones says.

In those cases, Jones says 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 says. “So that’s why we’re sticking with our faith. This isn’t a same-sex venue.”

Jones says her husband took took her to the property that would become Swann Lake Stables forty-four years ago, when they were just dating. She said it felt like a place of God. 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 is not the aim of the venue’s policy, Jones says. 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.” 

Nexstar’s WIAT 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. She says nothing in her conversation with Jones changed her mind that the policy is discriminatory.

Emily Valdez poses with her partner (Photo courtesy of Mary Catherine Fehr)

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 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.

WIAT 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. The city has not yet responded.

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 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.

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 doesn’t currently require 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.”