In a Rochester case, what constitutes a family and whether a business must recognize it as such, even if the state doesn't, is now up to a judge.
ROCHESTER - Inside the sprawling Rochester Athletic Club on the fringe of the city is a unique community gathering place called "The Neighborhood."
It features an ersatz town square with a miniature golf course, an artificial ice rink, a gym and a "cafe in the park." Building facades are painted on the walls to make the giant room look like an idyllic small town village. The slogan is: "Where families grow together."
But there's trouble in the neighborhood, and it's over what constitutes a "family," and who gets to decide.
A district judge in Olmsted County is now considering whether a precedent-setting discrimination lawsuit against the club and owner John Remick will proceed or be dismissed.
If allowed to continue, the suit will determine whether the club must give a lesbian couple and their 11-year-old child a family membership.
The family membership would save them about $500 per year.
Amy and Sarah Monson, who are supported by the organization OutFront Minnesota, attempted to buy a family membership at RAC last year. They were denied because they are not legally married.
They sued this year, claiming RAC discriminates based on sexual orientation, a violation of the Minnesota Human Rights Act. They say the rejection caused them anxiety and emotional distress.
The club currently offers family memberships to legally married couples only, with no consideration to their sexual orientation, argues attorney Gregory Griffiths. He argues the couple's beef is with the Minnesota Legislature, not the club.
"The questions in this case should not be about the political choices made by the Minnesota Legislature or about whether a person agrees or disagrees with the RAC policy," he wrote in his argument for the case to be dismissed. "The question is whether the RAC treats people who are gay, lesbian, or bisexual different from those who are not. It does not."
The Monsons were offered single memberships instead, which cost about $40 more per month.
Litigants have strong views
The Monsons live high on the hills overlooking Rochester in a white house with an American flag out front. A red truck outside has a rainbow decal, along with a bumper sticker that reads: "I love my wife."
Amy Monson is an English teacher at Rochester Mayo High School and is on the school's Diversity Council. Sarah Monson is a nurse. They exchanged vows in a 2002 ceremony, and Sarah took Amy's last name, according to attorney Philip Duran.
Remick is a director of Fastenal Corp. in Winona and is a large contributor to Republican candidates. According to press reports, Remick has also been a generous contributor to his Catholic high school, and in 1988 joined other Fastenal officers in giving $5 million to Winona's Catholic schools.
First case of its kind in state
The case is unique in Minnesota, but similar cases in other states have yielded mixed results, according to Duran. While older cases tended to favor defendants, plaintiffs have been more successful of late.
Duran said the athletic club admitted in court that it doesn't check to make sure heterosexual couples are really married. He also said the Olmsted County Human Rights Commission tried to mediate, but the club refused to take part.
Griffiths, the club's attorney, did not return phone calls.
But in his argument to the court, Griffiths referred to a 1990 case in which a landlord refused to rent to a woman and her fiancé. The Minnesota Supreme Court reversed the lower court's discrimination finding.
"The court held that, absent express legislative guidance, the term marital status would not be construed in a manner inconsistent with the state's policy against fornication and in favor of the institution of marriage," Griffiths wrote.
"The fact is they've got a product that they only sell to heterosexuals, and that's a problem," Duran countered.
A check of other health clubs found that most don't specify what defines a family.
Jason Thunstrom, spokesman for Life Time Fitness, a national chain based in Minnesota, said a couple can get a reduced rate if they can demonstrate proof of joint financial obligation, such as a mortgage or checking account.
In the Twin Cities, YMCAs, YWCAs and the Sabes Jewish Community Center in St. Louis Park allow same-gender family memberships.
"The Sabes JCC is an inclusive agency," said Stuart Wachs, executive director. "We would absolutely allow, and do allow, same-sex couples for couple and/or family memberships. Inclusion, be it sexual orientation, religion, financial ability, is an integral part of our mission."
Said Duran, "Almost all companies say, 'If you live together, no problem, we'll take your money.'"
Club membership divided
Kathy Raffel, who has a family membership at the Rochester Athletic Club, said she was fine with the Monsons getting one, too.
"If the law finds that they should have one, then I'll welcome them to the club," she said.
Former member Duane Quam agrees with the club's position.
"[The Monsons] are not being denied service," he said. "The club is following a legal definition of family that has been backed by a wide variety of people, [including the late Sen.] Paul Wellstone."
Those who know the Monsons are not surprised they are fighting the club's decision.
"[Amy Monson] is a phenomenal teacher and a phenomenal person," said former student Alyssa Offutt, who graduated from Mayo in June. "She brings so much energy and creativity into the classroom. You know she really cares about her students."
Offutt wrote an editorial for the school newspaper supporting the Monsons when they filed the suit in March.
"I don't think there is a textbook definition of a family, or that the RAC can define a family," Offutt said. "I think [the Monsons] are just as much a family as any family I've seen."
Jon Tevlin 612-673-1702