An upscale bed-and-breakfast in Paso Robles owned by prominent businessman and former Gazette newspapers owner David Weyrich is no longer part of a local wedding referral group, after questions were raised about whether the venue is available for "same-sex marriages."
Villa Toscana, on Buena Vista Road off Hwy. 46 East, was listed as a member of the Central Coast Wedding Professionals earlier this summer, but does not show up on the most current listings.
The issue came to light when the group of wedding photographers, caterers, florists, DJs, and other wedding service providers held a meeting at Villa Toscana in July to learn more about the venue. According to accounts of the day, the venue's event coordinator, Mary Allegretta, explained some of the features and accommodations offered by the high-end inn, and then asked for questions.
"I went to the meeting, and I asked, 'Do you allow same-sex marriages here?' She said, 'No, we don't do that,' in front of more than a hundred people," said photographer and CCWP member Chris Gardner. Gardner, a former New Times photographer, is editor of SLO City News.
Allegretta and Villa Toscana manager Therese Corea did not return repeated calls for this article. A call to Weyrich's home was answered by a woman who said Weyrich is out of the state and would not be available to discuss the matter.
Weyrich's anti-gay stance for his SLO County publications made national headlines in 2000.
Minutes from the wedding group's meeting show that Gardner's question and Allegretta's answer led to a July 17 discussion about whether the group, by keeping Villa Toscana as a member, would subject itself to liability under the state's Civil Rights Act.
"Request that the board review the membership and require them to comply [with the act] or revoke membership," reads the entry.
Although the wedding group's president, photographer Tom Meinhold, would not comment on why the inn left the organization, several members told New Times that Villa Toscana withdrew its membership after members voted to suspend the bed-and-breakfast while they sought a legal opinion about their liability. The members asked that their names not be used out of concern that the controversy could impact their businesses.
In another section of the wedding group's newsletter, Meinhold said he raised questions about Villa Toscana's "policy on same-sex marriage" before they were voted in last spring.
California does not officially recognize same-sex marriages, but members took Allegretta's answer to apply to the possibility of Villa Toscana being available for same-sex civil union ceremonies and receptions. California's domestic partnership law allows same-sex couples to be joined in a civil union.
Following the July meetings, some wedding group members wanted to learn more about their legal obligations to provide services to homosexual couples under California's civil rights law. San Luis Obispo lawyer Stew Jenkins spoke to the group on Aug. 7, presenting details of the Unruh Civil Rights Act.
That act, considered one of the strictest civil rights laws in the United States, states: "All persons within the jurisdiction of this state are free and equal, and no matter what their sex, race, color, religion, ancestry, national origin, disability, medical condition, marital status, or sexual orientation are entitled to the full and equal accommodations, advantages, facilities, privileges, or services in all business establishments of every kind whatsoever."
"If you're holding yourself out to provide services to the public, denying those services based on any of those classifications is forbidden," Jenkins said in a later interview.
Ceremonies and receptions for homosexual couples' civil unions are a growing business on the Central Coast, according to local wedding service providers.
Rev. Michael Taylor, a Universal Life Church "minister of peace" and a wedding officiant, said he's been approached by quite a few homosexual couples.
"This is a niche market, with people with higher incomes and higher education. The 'fu-fu' side of the wedding professionals should be knocking themselves out to get that niche market now," Taylor said.
Villa Toscana is considered one of the most expensive wedding venues in SLO County, with wedding packages starting at around $20,000 for the facility and the requisite two nights of accommodation.
The venue's owner, Weyrich, stated in 2000 that a string of community publications he owned in SLO County would not publish anything that cast a positive light on homosexuals. At least a dozen journalists and other staffers walked off the job, and many readers and advertisers also withdrew their support for the Gazette newspapers. Weyrich is no longer in the local publishing business.
"Call us old-fashioned," Weyrich stated in an article titled "The Truth of the Matter" in the Gazettes on Feb. 24, 2000, "but it hasn't been too many years since our professed beliefs were the accepted norm in America."
Taylor pointed out that it's not too many years since interracial marriage was frowned upon or even illegal in parts of the United States, but after years of civil rights legislation such as the Unruh Civil Rights Act surveys now show most young Americans are supportive of interracial relationships.
"Gay marriage is on the same path toward acceptance," Taylor said. "People will look back and ask, 'What was the big deal?'"
Freelance journalist Kathy Johnston was one of the Gazette staffers who resigned. Contact her at email@example.com.