A gay couple has been turned away from a North Carolina wedding venue.
McCae Henderson and Ike Edwards, who became engaged on Valentine's Day of this year, had applied via website to have their nuptials hosted at the Highgrove Estate in Fuquay-Varina, N.C.
At the time of the application, there was only an option to provide the names of the "bride" and "groom" on the form. So the couple noted that they were a same-sex pairing.
"In the notes section I just said we were a groom and groom," Edwards told WTVD, a local ABC affiliate. "It's not like we can ignore that and then show up."
In response, the Christian-owned wedding venue denied the request two days afterward, claiming it did not faciliate same-sex marriages. It provided a list of alternative spaces that would.
The rejection was "disheartening," said Henderson, a Raleigh-based attorney. "We had not had anything like this throughout the process or really in our lives."
"This is us. We are gay and we did not choose to be gay," Henderson added. "The fact that we don't have access to things other people do is discrimination in my eyes. I think everyone has the right to believe what they want to believe to an extent. I don't think you get to be racist because your religion tells you to be racist. I don't think you get to be homophobic because your religion tells you to be homophobic."
The owners and managers released a statement to WTVD defending their refusal on religious grounds.
"Highgrove has always welcomed vendors, guests and employees of all orientations and we do not discriminate against a people or group," the statement read. "We believe in the sanctity of marriage as God says in the Bible that marriage is between a man and a woman and we choose to honor Him above what the world decides what marriage should be."
Officials with the venue also responded to the couple's claims of discrimination and, in fact, alleged that "we're being made to feel like the other."
"When magazines and others chose not to do business with us because of this position, we respected that decision," they said. "That is their right. We do not judge them or retaliate because they chose to not respect our religious beliefs. The argument can just as easily be the same for us as we're being made to feel like the other. We are not the ones attacking, slandering and threatening others for their beliefs."
Highgrove's owners also said they've received backlash due to its policy that is "aggressive, hateful and designed to cause fear." At least one couple canceled their contract, and the venue claims to have received at least one threat, which was reported to police.
The CEO of Highgrove Estate is listed as Vicky Ismail in business records, reports the Daily Mail, a British tabloid. Ismail founded the business in 2002. The venue claims to offer "the best of Southern hospitality," and wedding receptions can range in price from $4,000 to $7,500.
At present, discrimination based on sexual orientation is not banned under federal or state civil rights protections -- although the Equality Act, which recently passed in the U.S. House of Representatives, would change that. There are local ordinances with LGBTQ+ protections in North Carolina but not in Highgrove's jurisdiction. The state has been a frequent battleground for LGBTQ+ issues, notably 2016's controversial House Bill 2, which attacked these local ordinances and barred transgender people from using many public restrooms. A portion of it was repealed in 2017 following the election of Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper.
The tension over the "religious freedom" to deny LGBTQ+ people service is a frequent issue in the culture wars as well as the courts. In 2018, the Masterpiece Cakeshop Supreme Court case was decided in favor of a baker who refused to make a cake for a same-sex wedding. However, the 7-2 ruling was narrowly shaped, leaving the debate over "religious freedom" an ongoing issue.