FUQUAY-VARINA, N.C. -- As if planning a wedding during the COVID-19 pandemic wasn't hard enough.
"Disheartening is the word I would use," McCae Henderson, an attorney in Raleigh, North Carolina, and groom-to-be told our sister station WTVD. "We had not had anything like this throughout the process or really in our lives."
Henderson and his fiance, Ike Edwards, got engaged on Valentine's Day and recently began to look for wedding venues. Among the potential spots: Highgrove Estate in Fuquay-Varina, an elegant white home surrounded by lush forestry and away from any city lights. The couple filled out an intake form on the estate's website, which only provided spaces for the name of the "bride" and "groom."
"In the notes section I just said we were a groom and groom," Edwards said. "It's not like we can ignore that and then show up."
The estate's response was the venue chooses not to host same-sex marriage ceremonies but offered other alternative sites.
"This is us. We are gay and we did not choose to be gay," Henderson said. "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 of Highgrove Estate declined to speak on camera but were very candid with WTVD in conversations off-camera.
In an exclusive statement sent to WTVD, the owners wrote "Highgrove has always welcomed vendors, guests and employees of all orientations and we do not discriminate against a people or group. 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."
Asked about the couple's frustration, the owners replied, "We have been respectful and kind when letting them know we are not the best fit for them. When magazines and others chose not to do business with us because of this position, we respected that decision. 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."
Both federal and state civil rights protect against discrimination based on race, color, creed, religion, sex and national origin - but not sexual orientation or gender identity. The U.S. House of Representatives recently passed the Equality Act, which would add those terms, but the legislation faces an uncertain future in the more conservative senate.
The LGBTQ community has long campaigned for those changes to protect against claims of discrimination in education, access to credit, jury service, federal funding, housing and public accommodations, among other things.
"Discrimination in my eyes is marginalizing a group of people and othering them," Henderson said.
In North Carolina specifically, only recently did state law allow for municipalities to expand its own non-discrimination ordinances to include those protections; the General Assembly, meanwhile, seems unlikely to stir the pot since HB2.
"The business owner's freedom needs to be protected just like the freedom of that couple to get married needs to be protected," Sen. Jim Burgin (R-Harnett County) told WTVD. " I just feel like we got too many laws and too many rules, and government is too involved in our lives. I think we've got to, as lawmakers, we need to be very careful that we don't overstep the whole idea of personal religious freedoms and opportunities to live life unencumbered by government."
According to Highgrove, at least one couple has already requested canceling its contract, which the owners honored. There has also been at least one threat to the business, which the owners said they shared with the Fuquay-Varina Police Department.
"The backlash is sad, it's been aggressive, hateful and designed to cause fear," the owners argued. "What they are asking is for us to believe just like them and they will leave us alone. We stand by our beliefs in the sanctity of marriage and that is not going to change. We wish (McCae Henderson and Ike Edwards) to find the very best venue and that their special day is wonderful."
Henderson and Edwards, meanwhile, said they've been "moved" by an outpouring of support.
"I think the reason we're doing this is we need to push the needle towards eliminating discrimination in private businesses all across the board," Henderson added. "They are entitled to think whatever they want or believe, but I think it's up to us to let people know, 'Hey, if you want to go to a venue that supports LGBTQ couples, this is not one of them.'"
The couple, however, voiced regret over the reported threat and condemned any attack - physical or verbal - against the venue. They're also committed to putting this chapter behind and looking forward to their big celebration.
"This won't take away our joy."