Lodi-area winery apologizes, reverses policy after refusing to host lesbian wedding

A Lodi-area winery has apologized after refusing to host a lesbian couple’s wedding based on the owners’ religious objections.

Nikki Levy posted screenshots of an email from Viaggio Estate & Winery to Facebook on Tuesday, calling winery wedding and events director Angelina Hodgson’s explanation “overt homophobia.”

Viaggio owners Larry and Teri Lawrence are fundamentally opposed to same-sex marriage and have never hosted a same-sex wedding, Hodgson wrote in the email posted by Levy.

“(The owners) understand that California statutory law prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation, and they don’t like to think they would ever discriminate on that basis even if a law allowed them to do so,” the email read. “However, the owner also has a very strong personal religious belief regarding marriage, which is for marriage to be between heterosexual couples only. They believe that the United States Constitution and the California Constitution protect these religious beliefs and their right to express them.”

Teri Lawrence is Viaggio’s president and winemaker while Larry, the former president of the Sacramento County Farm Bureau, handles the estate’s day-to-day maintenance and operations. Both are real estate investors.

The owners share their religious convictions in the “About the Owners” section of their site, saying, “We are very happy with everything we’ve accomplished, giving all credit and glory to God, and thank Him daily for the courage and strength to live our lives to the fullest each day.”

After significant deliberation, the Lawrences came up with a solution they hoped would make everyone comfortable, Hodgson said in the email to Levy. Levy and her wife could host their cocktail hour, dinner and dancing reception at Viaggio if they wished, she wrote, so long as the ceremony took place elsewhere.

“You may come in your wedding attire and take photos and receive the same services as other guests of ours who have been married off-site and have the celebration here,” Hodgson wrote. “It is the actual ceremony that would be violating their personal religious beliefs.”

Teri Lawrence apologized for Viaggio’s policy and announced it would be changed to host all weddings in a prepared statement Wednesday afternoon.

“In recent communications with potential visitors, I tried to explore options for celebrations that would accommodate both my religious beliefs and the expectations of our community. I realize now that contrary to my intent, this was hurtful to the people involved,” Lawrence wrote.

“Our staff, our customers and our community have helped me see that I was wrong. Our policy has been changed, effective immediately. All couples are welcome to hire our facilities for weddings and the celebrations that go with them. I am sincerely sorry to have caused anyone pain at a time that should be joyous.”

Teri Lawrence has a long history of expressing disapproval of same-sex marriage, as seen in blog posts she appears to have written in the months leading up to California’s Proposition 8 vote.

A bio page found on the couple’s real estate company website identifies Teri Lawrence as “a founding member of Diversity Reform USA and an active member of Eagle Forum of Sacramento.” Both of those groups profess “pro-family” beliefs and take stances against gay marriage, gay adoption and teaching about homosexuality in schools.

In 2004, Lawrence objected to a series of workshops that Women Escaping a Violent Environment had already been presenting at Elk Grove schools for more than a decade, claiming they discriminated against white males and violated family values, according to an archived story by The Bee.

The workshops included a chart about power and control that listed “white” and “heterosexual” among the groups considered to have power and “nonwhite” and “homosexual” as those without power.

“You don’t put political propaganda out there and teach the kids,” Lawrence said in 2004, according to The Bee.

The Lawrences’ 23-acre winery, Italian for “journey,” sits in the San Joaquin County town of Acampo, just north of Lodi along the Mokelumne River. Reviews on Viaggio’s Yelp page are being monitored after Levy’s supporters flooded the page with negative reactions.

The U.S. Supreme Court voted 7-2 last year in favor of a Colorado baker who refused to bake a wedding cake for a gay couple because of religious objections. The ruling was written by then-Justice Anthony Kennedy, a Sacramento native and C.K. McClatchy High School alumnus.

However, the Unruh Civil Rights Act prohibits discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation as well as race, religion, ancestry, disability and several other factors in California places of business.

Levy did not immediately respond to phone calls and Facebook messages from The Bee requesting comment. Levy indicated in social media comments that she planned to take her concerns to the ACLU.

A representative from ACLU Northern California said no one was available Wednesday to comment.

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Benjy Egel covers local restaurants and bars for The Sacramento Bee as well as general breaking news and investigative projects. A Sacramento native, he previously covered business for the Amarillo Globe-News in Texas.
Michael McGough anchors The Sacramento Bee’s breaking news reporting team, covering public safety and other local stories. A Sacramento native and lifelong capital resident, he interned at The Bee while attending Sacramento State, where he earned a degree in journalism.