Indiana gay couple denied tax service

Smantha (foreground) with Bailey Brazzel, lesbian couple denied tax return service for religious reasons because they are married.

RUSSIAVILLE, Ind. -- For the last four years, Bailey Brazzel has gone to Carver Tax Service in this tiny Indiana town to have her taxes done by Nancy Fivecoate, who runs the business.

That changed this year when Brazzel showed up at Fivecoate’s office with her wife, Samantha, on Tuesday. They were married in Peru, Indiana, in July and were filing their taxes jointly for the first time. 

When Fivecoate realized they were married, she refused to do their taxes, citing her religious beliefs, and politely recommended another tax service which would work with them.

She said she has no problem preparing tax returns for gay clients who are single. 

“I am a Christian and I believe marriage is between one man and one woman,” said Fivecoate. “I was very respectful to them. I told them where I thought she might be able to get her taxes prepared.” 

Brazzel said she was taken aback by Fivecoate’s refusal. 

“At first we thought she was kidding,” she said. “But when she started talking about the Bible, we knew she was serious – and I was completely shocked.” 

Brazzel, who works at the Fiat Chrysler Automobiles transmission plant in nearby Tipton, said she’s been openly gay for years and never before felt discriminated against because of her sexual orientation – even after she married Samantha last year.

“You hear about it all the time, but nothing like this has happened to us before,” Brazzel said. “She had done my taxes with no issues before, but now that we were married and she didn’t agree with my life choices, she wouldn’t.” 

“We were pretty upset,” Brazzel added. “My wife was trying to console me and I was crying.”

Fivecoate said she was simply sticking to her religious convictions in a town settled by Quakers in the mid-19th century. The population today is about 1,000. Russiaville is an hour north of Indianapolis in central Indiana.

”The LGBT want respect for their beliefs, which I give them,” said Fivecoate. “I did not say anything about their lifestyle. That’s their choice. It is not my choice. Where is their respect for my beliefs.” 

She continued: “A few years ago, I had a couple of gay clients that married,” she said. “When it was time to prepare their taxes they called me and asked if I had a problem since they were married. I told them that as a Christian that I could not prepare their taxes. I thanked them for calling and wished them well.” 

But for Brazzel’s father, William, who was with the couple during the rejection incident, the decision boiled down to just one thing,  “flat out discrimination.”

“I just think it’s wrong,” he said. “I told her (Fivecoate) we all wake up and put on our pants the same way.”

In Kokomo, seat of government for Howard County where Russiaville is located, it would have been considered discrimination and could have included a fine up to $2,000. A measure protecting lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender citizens through the city’s human rights municipal code was approved in 2016.

Most other major Indiana cities, including Indianapolis, have approved similar legislation that protects sexual orientation in business transactions. 

Yet denying a gay couple service is still perfectly legal in parts of Indiana that haven’t passed such ordinance.That includes Russiaville and Howard County.

Indiana law makes it illegal to deny services to people based on their race, color, national origin, ancestry, religion, sex, familial status (having children under 18) and disability – but not sexual orientation unless a community or county acts to include it.

Steve Sanders, an associate professor of law at Indiana University’s Maurer School of Law, said the lack of statewide LGBT protections has led to a glaring incongruity that leaves discriminated gay couples powerless to do anything to defend themselves. 

“The only recourse is good-old fashioned shaming – going on Facebook and telling their friends this is a discriminatory business and people might want to think twice about visiting,” he said. 

Since 2015, a U.S. Supreme Court decision has allowed same-sex couples to legally marry anywhere in the country. But it’s also still legal to deny those couples services because of their sexual orientation without local or state laws protecting them

Last year, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of a Colorado baker who refused to make a cake celebrating a gay marriage. The court’s ruling, however, narrowly applied to the Colorado case and left broader questions on religious liberties unsettled. 

Vice President Mike Pence attracted national attention when as governor of Indiana in 2015 he signed a religious freedom law allowing businesses to refuse service to same-sex couples on religious grounds. Objectors said it would worsen conditions for the LGBT community, inflict economic harm and drive national conventions and sporting events from the state. 

Pence reacted to the strong criticism from the business community by later signing an amendment to the law intended to protect gays and lesbian. But, Sanders said, the law left it up to local governments to implement the protection.

Carson Gerber is a reporter for the Kokomo, Indiana, Tribune. Contact him at carson.gerber@kokomotribune.com.