Lesbian couples sue for equality at Panhandle gym

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AMARILLO, Texas (AP) — She didn't walk in looking for a fight. But after inquiring about membership at Amarillo Town Club on Valentine's Day, Katie Roberts and a growing number of supporters have publicly joined the national debate pitting religious freedom against rights for same-sex couples.

While touring the Town Club's southwest Amarillo gym facilities with a co-worker, Roberts asked about a couples membership plan for her and fiancee Amanda Parrack. She claims she was denied membership because of her sexual orientation.

"The guy said we had to have a marriage license for our couples membership, and it has to be from Texas," Roberts told the Amarillo Globe-News (http://bit.ly/1ce3dVP). "Well, we all know same-sex marriages are illegal in the state of Texas. I feel like he was just avoiding telling me that they didn't recognize same-sex couples, but instead, I feel like he just lied to me about the policy."

So Roberts turned to Facebook to vent her frustration over how she was treated by Town Club staff.

Comments poured in from dozens of same-sex couples who said they too were denied a Town Club couples or family membership. So Roberts started a petition Feb. 19 asking the gym and its parent company, Baptist Community Services, to "allow same-sex couples to purchase couples and family memberships and increase professionalism with policy deliveries."

About 4,800 supporters have signed Roberts' petition.

Town Club Vice President Steve Halsey wouldn't discuss Roberts' claim and said, "in light of the fact that it concerns membership services, we have no comment."

In addition to the Town Club, Baptist Community Services owns Park Central and The Arbors, both retirement communities, and 20 percent of BSA Health System.

Roberts said she was unaware of the Town Club's religious affiliation at the time of the tour.

When asked whether he was aware of the accusations made against the Town Club, Halsey said, "They are just that, accusations. No comment."

Steve Dalrymple, CEO and president of Baptist Community Services, would not say whether the Town Club has a policy concerning same-sex couples and families, or comment on any other questions regarding the accusations.

Dalrymple did explain the couples and family memberships.

"There isn't a couples membership," he said. "We have a married couples and we have a family membership, which can be a single family and a child. That's just a fact."

At the Town Club's website, amarillotownclub.com, a couples membership is listed for married couples or a parent with a minor child, and a family membership is for married couples or a parent and their children under the age of 22 years who are living in the same household.

When asked if married couples are required to show proof of their marriage, Dalrymple said he was "not going to comment on that because I can't even speak to that. I don't know."

Ashley Villegas, whose story is the motivation behind Roberts' petition, said she was infuriated after being told by a Town Club employee that she, her female fiancee and their children are not a family.

"When we told the guy that we wanted a family membership, the guy told us no," Villegas said. "He asked us who these kids belong to. We told them the kids were ours, but the guy said we could not get a family membership because we were not a family, in front of my kids."

Villegas said she and her partner were offered separate family memberships.

"I could sign up with me and my child and my partner could sign up with her child, but we couldn't be under one family membership," she said.

Jennifer Beck and her partner inquired about the same plan and were also denied membership in 2012. Beck was also told she and her partner could sign up under separate family memberships with their children.

"I just got off the phone and started crying," she said, "I'm not an activist or radical. I'm just a hard-working businesswoman with a family who has fun exercising with my family and was rejected."

Though Beck was offered an alternative membership, she said she refused to support a business that rejects her family.

"I opted to give my business and my money somewhere else," Beck said.

Dawn Escamilla, who is heterosexual and canceled her Town Club membership this month in support of Roberts, said she was not asked to show a marriage license to verify she was married.

"When I signed up, nothing was discussed about what constituted as a family," she said. "They just gave me a form to fill out."

Dalrymple said issues regarding rights for same-sex couples are important.

"I don't think this is the place to discuss those issues," Dalrymple said. "Those are important issues to the community. I just don't think this is the appropriate platform."

Escamilla disagrees.

"I'm a Christian, and I believe that we should still treat each other with dignity and respect," she said. "Being a Christian, I thought we were all loved ... we're supposed to welcome people with open arms and love on them. We can (always) find other gyms to go to, but we just wanted to bring this up because it's discrimination."

Brian T. Thompson, a counsel lawyer for Hopper Mikeska PLLC in Austin and a board member of Equality Texas, said the Town Club has been accused of discrimination, but its policies are protected under the First Amendment.

"Basically what they're doing is perfectly legal under the law, if they're doing it under religious convictions," Thompson said. "The organization that owns the gym holds themselves out as a Baptist organization. Religious groups under the First Amendment cannot be required to associate with particular individuals that may have religious objections to that."

In Texas, people can be denied membership to a gym, service in a restaurant or employment, and workers can be fired from a job because of sexual orientation, Thompson said.

He added that, while some Texas cities have nondiscrimination ordinances, it still does not hold to the religion clause under the First Amendment.

"There is no remedy or legal protection for LGBT people," he said. "The best thing they can do is what's happening now — public outrage.

"A lot of times with these things, legal pressure is not as effective as economic, social and cultural pressure."

Thompson's statement referred to the actions of Arizona residents who protested and criticized a bill that would have allowed businesses to refuse service to gays.

On Wednesday, Republican Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer vetoed the bill.

"It could divide Arizona in ways we cannot even imagine and nobody could ever want," she said.

Texas has also been in the spotlight regarding same-sex couples. In 2003, lawmakers passed a bill that bans same-sex unions, and in 2005 approved a state constitutional amendment penned by then-Rep. Warren Chisum of Pampa that defined marriage as being between a man and a woman.

U.S. District Judge Orlando Garcia ruled Wednesday that Texas' ban on gay marriage was unconstitutional, but postponed action pending appeals in separate courts.

State officials have announced plans to appeal the ruling, in which Garcia said marriage was an individual right that a voter-approved constitutional amendment couldn't deny.

Garcia's ruling added to a tangled web of court rulings and state laws across the country that is expected to end up before the U.S. Supreme Court. There are civil rights lawsuits in 24 states asking courts to overturn gay marriage bans.

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder said Tuesday that state attorneys general were not obligated to defend local laws if they thought the laws violated the U.S. Constitution.

Roberts, Villegas, Beck and Escamilla said they understand if the Town Club wants to cater to a certain group, but their employees could work on their professionalism.

"Needless to say, Amarillo Town Club has the right to not recognize same-sex couples for their couples or family membership, but the way that they're handling it is not OK," Roberts said, adding another local gym reached out to Roberts and Parrack and offered them a free membership.

Zach's Club 54 Manager Brian Lovato said his gym offers a wide-range of memberships, including couples and family membership plans.

"With our family membership, it could be three or four buddies," he said. "It doesn't have to be immediate family, it just has to be three or four people at the initial sign-in to be given all the same price, and it (the draft) has to come from the same account."

The same rules apply for a couples membership, Lovato said.

While Roberts hopes the Town Club changes their policy, she said the main goal for her petition is raising awareness.

"Best-case scenario: They will change their stance on it and accept families of all types," she said. "But the most important thing is for them to train their staff to be more professional on how they handle these situations."


Information from: Amarillo Globe-News, http://www.amarillo.com

Eds: This is an AP Member Exchange shared by the Amarillo Globe-News.

Copyright © The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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