Com­pany de­clines to pro­vide a DJ for gay man’s party

The Washington Post Sunday - - LOCAL OPINIONS - BY MICHELLE BOORSTEIN michelle.boorstein@wash­post.com Magda Jean-Louis con­trib­uted to this re­port.

First there was the New Mex­ico wed­ding pho­tog­ra­pher. Then there was the In­di­ana pizza maker. Nowthere is the Mary­land disc jockey com­pany.

The na­tional de­bate about how to bal­ance re­li­gious con­science pro­tec­tions and gay equal­ity flared in the large, mostly lib­eral Wash­ing­ton sub­urb of Mont­gomery County on Fri­day, when Dani Tsak­ou­nis tried to help her brother hire Ul­tra­sound Dee­jays for a party. An owner of the busi­ness told Tsak­ou­nis he would not pro­vide the DJ be­cause Tsak­ou­nis’s brother, a Sil­ver Spring ther­a­pist, is mar­ried to an­other man and the birth­day party they are host­ing is for their 60-year-old room­mate, who is also gay.

“I just said, ‘We won’t be able to do it, we’re a Chris­tian or­ga­ni­za­tion and it would go against our faith, I’m sorry,’ ” Michael Lam­piris, co-owner of Ul­tra­sound Dee­jays, said Fri­day.

Tom Tsak­ou­nis, 46, was so up­set when his sis­ter told him that he posted the news on his neigh­bor­hood’s e-mail group, prompt­ing calls of sym­pa­thy from neigh­bors. He also reg­is­tered a com­plaint with the Mont­gomery County Hu­man Rights Com­mis­sion, which hears cases of al­leged dis­crim­i­na­tion.

Mary­land state law has banned dis­crim­i­na­tion based on sex­ual ori­en­ta­tion in public ac­com­mo­da­tion — which in­cludes busi­nesses “of­fer­ing goods, ser­vices, en­ter­tain­ment” the law says — since 2001. But the ques­tion of whether such laws in­fringe on the rights of re­li­gious con­ser­va­tives has re­ceived in­creased at­ten­tion as more gay-equal­ity ad­vo­cates have stepped up to file com­plaints and re­li­gious con­ser­va­tives have ar­gued that their con­science rights are be­ing vi­o­lated.

In this case, both Lam­piris and Tsak­ou­nis were sur­prised the is­sue erupted — but for dif­fer­ent rea­sons.

Tom Tsak­ou­nis said he had never been de­nied ser­vices in his life be­cause he is gay and was floored to see it hap­pen in Mont­gomery— a lib­eral sub­urb where he has lived for 15 years. Lam­piris, 54, has lived in the county for 30 years and said he had never heard of the law for­bid­ding such dis­crim­i­na­tion.

Ul­tra­sound Dee­jays, which he founded in the 1980s with his brother, has a writ­ten com­pany pol­icy stat­ing “we will not be in­volved in any event in­volv­ing ho­mo­sex­ual cel­e­bra­tion or ac­tiv­ity. We fol­low bi­b­li­cal moral­ity.”

The com­pany pol­icy states that it is a “fam­ily friendly” firm and won’t play vul­gar mu­sic, tol­er­ate provoca­tive danc­ing or be in­volved with strip­pers, “for­tune tell­ers, psy­chics, or ma­gi­cians.”

“We will al­ways try to pro­vide a bright, en­ter­tain­ing, whole­some and fun dee­jay style where no one is left out,” the pol­icy says. “Let us work to­gether to keep Amer­ica clean and good!”

Hear­ing his sis­ter tell what hap­pened, Tsak­ou­nis said, and read­ing the Ul­tra­sound pol­icy “made me feel like I got hit in the stom­ach. You feel like: ‘ C’mon, in my neigh­bor­hood?’ But: Wow, yes — inmy neigh­bor­hood.”

Lam­piris sounded un­con­cerned about a pos­si­ble legal chal­lenge. Their firm, which has at times had a ros­ter of 40 DJ con­trac­tors, has turned down other events, he said, such as when a teacher wouldn’t prom­ise to work to stop raunchy danc­ing among stu­dents, or when he found out a bridal party in­cluded sev­eral les­bians.

Dani Tsak­ou­nis and Lam­piris char­ac­ter­ized their con­ver­sa­tion the same way: friendly at the start, with Lam­piris telling her he could send a DJ, and then ask­ing for a few more de­tails in or­der to find a good match. Once she told him it was a 60th birth­day, Lam­piris joked that she sounded too young to have a peer who was 60 — was this her fa­ther? That led to her de­scrib­ing that the man hav­ing the birth­day was a long-ago part­ner of her brother, and that her brother was now mar­ried to an­other man. The three live in the same house.

“I said, ‘Are they to­gether in a union?’ And she said, ‘Yes.’ It took me aback, and I said, ‘I don’t know if any­one would want to do it, I just don’t know,’ ” Lam­piris re­called say­ing. Then he told Tsak­ou­nis that his ob­jec­tion was re­li­gious. “She said, ‘For­get it,’ and hung up.”

In this case, Lam­piris said he had never heard of a re­lated law, “but it’s im­por­tant for us tomake a stand. We don’t want to go against the law, but we also some­times are called to do that if it goes against your faith. To me it would be like a sy­n­a­gogue hav­ing to cater to a neo-Nazi party or black DJ hav­ing to do a KKK dance,” he said. Gay clients don’t pose a “phys­i­cal threat — it’s a con­science thing, and con­science is very im­por­tant for every­body. In fact, I think it’s the most im­por­tant thing.”

Jer Wel­ter, man­ag­ing at­tor­ney of FreeS­tate Legal, which pro­vides legal ad­vo­cacy for gay, les­bian, bi­sex­ual and trans­gen­der peo­ple in Mary­land, said sev­eral dozen cases like this come into county and state civil rights of­fices each year and are mostly re­solved through me­di­a­tion. Some have been lit­i­gated, he said. Most cases of dis­crim­i­na­tion never get filed as com­plaints, he said.

How­ever, U.S. courts are still hash­ing out a bal­ance be­tween re­li­gious con­science pro­tec­tions and pro­tec­tion from dis­crim­i­na­tion. One legal ex­pert who spe­cial­izes in re­li­gious lib­erty but didn’t want to speak by name about the DJ case with­out know­ing more de­tails said courts have looked at ques­tions such as: What are a busi­ness’s gen­eral poli­cies and cul­ture? What kind of spe­cific ac­tiv­ity were they asked to en­gage in? For ex­am­ple, the lawyer said, there might be a dif­fer­ence be­tween sim­ply re­fus­ing to serve a gay cou­ple and re­fus­ing to work at an event that is cen­tered on “cel­e­brat­ing ho­mo­sex­u­al­ity.”

He noted that in April, a Ken­tucky cir­cuit court ruled that a Chris­tian T-shirt maker had the right to refuse to make gay-pride fes­ti­val shirts.

What will hap­pen next wasn’t clear. Ef­forts to reach the state and county civil rights of­fices late Fri­day were not suc­cess­ful.

Tsak­ou­nis said his sis­ter and other friends were try­ing to help him and his hus­band find an­other DJ for the party for their friend— who is Tom’s long-ago boyfriend and now their room­mate. They had never con­sid­ered any po­ten­tial dis­crim­i­na­tion is­sue, and the space booked for the party, which is in Au­gust, is the Knights of Colum­bus Hall, which is a Catholic Church-af­fil­i­ated build­ing, he said.

Af­ter the Fri­day in­ci­dent with Lam­piris, Tsak­ou­nis said he left a voice mail with the Knights.

“Now I’m re­ally ner­vous. What if they say no? My sis­ter said, ‘I’d never walk into a Knights of Colum­bus hall and say: I’m straight, I’m hav­ing a straight party.’ We just haven’t had to think about th­ese things.”

Lam­piris said he hopes the is­sue won’t be­come a stand­off in any way. But if it did, “we would make a stand if the good Lord is will­ing,” he said, cit­ing the New Tes­ta­ment book of Acts: “We ought to obey God rather than men.”

“To me it would be like a sy­n­a­gogue hav­ing to cater to a neo-Nazi party or black DJ hav­ing to do a KKK dance.” Michael Lam­piris, co-owner

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