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Thursday, Jan. 3, 2019 12:07 am

Couple claims discrimination

Habitat for Humanity denies allegations

Alex Walker, left, and his husband, Taylor Walker, say they were targeted on the basis of their sexual orientation by Habitat for Humanity.
Photo by Bruce Rushton

 

The sides can’t agree on what happened, and so at least one thing must be true: Someone is either lying or mistaken.

Alex and Taylor Walker say they were the subject of discrimination at the hands of a Habitat for Humanity store manager in Sullivan, where they said they were ordered out of the store last October after a quick embrace that left no doubt that they were gay. Habitat for Humanity, the couple says, is biased against homosexuals.

Not so, says Gary Smith, president of Moultrie County Habitat for Humanity. He says the group that runs a secondhand store and helps build housing for the disadvantaged welcomes everyone. “We’re not going to discriminate against anyone,” Smith says.

The Walkers have retained an attorney, and their case is now before the Illinois Human Rights Commission. They say that video from store surveillance cameras would back their version of events.

It began last October, when the Walkers, who’ve been married for three years, visited the ReStore second-hand shop run by Habitat for Humanity in Sullivan. Bargain hunting is their hobby, they say, and they’ve been welcomed at second-hand stores throughout central Illinois. Both men say that they’d never before visited the Sullivan ReStore outlet.

The Walkers, who’ve submitted affidavits to the human rights commission, say that they were in the store for about five minutes when Taylor briefly put his arm around Alex and said he was going to check out a different area of the store. “He kind of puts his arm around me and whispers in my ear, ‘Hey, I’m going to this other area and look for something else,” Alex Walker recalls in an interview. That’s when the store manager approached, the Walkers say. “She’s like, ‘Young man, I’m going to have to ask that you leave,’” Alex Walker says. “I look at her and I say ‘Why?’ She said ‘We don’t allow homosexual behavior or homosexuals in our store.’” In their affidavits, the Walkers say that the manager was shouting. “It was humiliating and embarrassing,” Taylor Walker writes in his sworn statement.

Smith, the charity’s president, says that Taylor had been in the store previously and caused some sort of problem, and the couple was being loud and disruptive. Both Taylor and Alex Walker say that they’d never set foot in the store until the day they were ordered to leave. Alex acknowledges cussing and becoming angry, but only after the manager said that the store didn’t allow gay people. A black person or a Muslim or anyone else ordered to leave a business because of the color of their skin or their religion would become angry, too, if they faced the same sort of discrimination, the couple says. “We’re normal people,” Taylor says.

The couple says that their show of affection was limited to a quick squeeze around the waist, the sort of hug that happens every day in any number of public places without anyone taking offense. They say their anger grew after they complained about the store manager to Smith. “It got worse after talking to him,” Alex Taylor says.

Alex Taylor says he made multiple calls to both the state office for Habitat for Humanity and the Moultrie County office over the course of two days, but no one called back. Finally, he says, he reached Smith. “He said ‘Yeah, I heard something about that,’” Alex Taylor recalls. At that point, Alex Taylor said, all he wanted was an apology from Smith and from the store manager. “Then I was going to be done with it,” Alex Taylor says.

In his affidavit, Alex Taylor writes that Smith apologized. “I then asked him if Taylor and I were allowed back into the store. He replied, ‘Well, no, because I don’t want people like that coming into the store,’ clearly referencing our sexual orientation. I said ‘What?’ He replied, ‘I don’t need people like that coming in the store and causing problems,’ referring to our homosexuality as a ‘problem.’”

Smith says sexual orientation has nothing to do with it. Rather, he says that the Walkers were told to leave because they were disruptive. “They went in and there was a manager down there who said something about problems before with one of them,” Smith says. “Then that guy blew up and started cussing her and went up and down, up and down, cussing her. She had to ask him to leave. She was getting ready to call the police, I guess.”

Sarah Noll, attorney for the Walkers, says it’s too soon to say whether the matter will morph into a lawsuit. Smith says that no one can come into the charity’s store and cause problems the way that the Walkers did.

“Anyone can file a complaint on anything,” Smith says.

Contact Bruce Rushton at brushton@illinoistimes.com.

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