O’FALLON, Missouri—Madison’s Cafe is a family-style pub located in a modest strip mall in St. Charles County, a “white flight” suburb west of St. Louis. The first thing you see when you walk in is a grandfather clock with the words tempus fugit (“time flies”). On Tuesday, I went in and asked to be seated. Everyone working there and every single person in the restaurant apart from two Asian women diners appeared to be white.
A middle-aged white man took me to a table, brought me water and bread, and asked me if I wanted anything else to drink. I told him I had some questions before I would decide if I would order or not: questions about their recent refusal to honor the reservation of a couple’s wedding rehearsal dinner once they found out it was two women getting married.
I told him that “I’m gay,” and asked—since their website now says they only serve people in accordance with “Christian principles”—if they would still serve me lunch?
Absolutely, he told me. Co-owner Tom Kuhn (which he pronounced “Coon”) seemed happy to answer all of my questions:
Could I bring a date here? Yes, Kuhn said, adding that they have gay employees. Would you serve a party of Jewish people after a Bar Mitzvah, even though Madison’s vowed not to “host or facilitate any event that we believe directly contradicts our Christian principles”? Yes. Do you ask straight couples who want to have a wedding rehearsal dinner if they’ve had premarital sex?
He said he didn’t want to know anything about that and wouldn’t ask such a thing; all they ask is the name of the bride and groom, which brings us to the story of bride and bride Mindy Rackley and Kendall Brown.
In an often teary interview with the Daily Beast on Wednesday, ahead of their wedding Saturday, Rackley and Brown explained how they planned their wedding rehearsal dinner at Madison’s because it had been the favorite restaurant of Rackley’s late father.
Then, a woman from Madison’s called Brown herself to get her future husband’s name. And when she heard Rackley was marrying a woman, she told them they weren’t welcome.
After the women went public with their story and it received widespread attention, Madison’s put a mission statement on their website proclaiming that, “In order to honor God, we will not host or facilitate any event that we believe directly contradicts our Christian principles” and “that it is our religious duty not to aid or assist others to act immorally.”
Focusing on finalizing their wedding plans, the brides said they’d had “no idea” until I explained to them that while Madison’s doesn’t have the right to discriminate against them due to religion, it does have the legal right to discriminate against them for being lesbians. In most U.S. states and under federal law, LGBTQ people are not a protected class of people from discrimination.
Kuhn kept saying Madison’s doesn’t “discriminate,” but that they “had a right to refuse service.” He said if the lesbian brides-to-be had said they were coming in for an office party with lots of gay guests, or if they’d used different names for their reservation, they’d have had no problem. (“If we had lied about who we are,” Rackley replied when I told her about this.)
But Kuhn viewed a wedding rehearsal dinner as a sanctioning of same-sex marriage, which his Catholic faith forbade, and so he and his wife and co-owner chose to “stand up” for what they thought was right, even though he has said it has gotten them threats. He simply “didn’t want to feed them,” the restaurateur told me. (Brown, who is a non-denominational Christian, replied when I conveyed this: “That’s not the God I know.”)
Pressed on passages in the Bible about welcoming the stranger, Kuhn said none of that applies to lesbians who wanted to get married. (No passage in the Bible says anything directly about same-sex marriage.) But even though he was still happy to serve me lunch, I told him I didn’t want to give him my money and left after our brief conversation.
Since the 1970s, some activists and politicians have argued that sexual orientation and gender identity ought to be added to the categories protected by the Civil Rights Act of 1964. In May, the House of Representatives finally passed the Equality Act to this end, though it stands little chance of passage in the Republican Senate. As sponsor David Cicilline said: “It’s absurd that, in 2019, members of the LGBTQ community can be fired from their jobs, denied service in a restaurant or get thrown out of their apartment because of their sexual orientation or gender identify.”
But while federal law currently allows all these forms of bigotry, many state and local governments have their own nondiscrimination policies that forbid them. Was Madison’s bigotry in compliance with O’Fallon, Missouri law?
Yes, according to the city’s communications director, Tom Drabelle. While O’Fallon does have a municipal anti-discrimination ordinance, it “does not delineate sexual orientation” as a protected class.
The threat of economic harm to LGBTQ people is real. Rackley, a massage therapist, says she has lost clients in the past when they found out she is lesbian.
“I’m a teacher,” at a public high school, Brown said while holding Rackley’s hand, adding that her “biggest fear in going public” after Madison’s rejected their party was “what may happen with my job—and I had to have a moment where I sat with myself and I said, OK, I could be fired over this. Am I willing to accept that consequence for doing this? And I decided it was worth it, because if there was anything I wanted my kids to know it is who they are is worth fighting for. And if I got fired for that then I don’t want to work there anyway.” She added she’s long been out to her colleagues, and has received nothing but support from them since the story broke.
Their rehearsal dinner Thursday went off without a hitch, at one of 20 restaurants which contacted them offering to step in (they didn’t want to name it for fear of any reprisal). Then, they got married Saturday night before 200 friends and family. Next week, they will go on a volunteer service trip to Bali for their honeymoon.
Rackley says they “wish no harm” to Madison’s, and will leave any major decisions about what to do about this (such as whether to file a lawsuit) until they return, when they plan to be “all about the community” and showing up for others as others have shown up for them.
Steven W. Thrasher, PhD is Daniel Renberg Chair of media coverage of sexual and gender minorities at Northwestern University. Formerly named Journalist of the Year by the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association, his writing frequently appears in the New York Times, Guardian, BuzzFeed News, Atlantic and Esquire. He lives in Chicago.