Colonial Williamsburg denies discrimination allegations against guest with food allergy

The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation denied violating any laws or mistreating a Maryland boy with a food allergy while he was eating in Shields Tavern with a school group in May, according to a filing Monday in U.S. District Court.

A Maryland family had filed a lawsuit in July alleging that Colonial Williamsburg violated federal and state law by discriminating against the boy, referred to as J.D. in court documents, by not allowing him to eat his food inside Shields Tavern May 11.

In Colonial Williamsburg’s response to the lawsuit, it said staff informed the boy’s school it does not allow outside food in its taverns, Shields Tavern did offer to prepare gluten-free meals for the boy as an accommodation, and the school ordered gluten-free meals on the boy’s behalf prior to coming to Colonial Williamsburg.

The foundation also says the tavern’s head chef is trained to prepare gluten-free meals and did so for the boy. On the night of the school group’s visit, the tavern had several other visitors with food allergies for which it prepared specialized food. It also says Shields Tavern routinely prepares gluten-free meals for guests.

The foundation’s response to the lawsuit states that the tavern’s head chef offered to prepare other gluten-free food for the boy, but his father refused. The foundation also said in its response that it never asked the family to leave the tavern, but they chose to leave and eat outside.

In its response, the foundation said the head chef for Shields Tavern personally spoke to the father to tell him that he personally prepared the gluten-free meals, which could be eaten safely, but “he was not interested.”

According to a July news release from Stein & Vargas, the law firm representing J.D. and the family, the boy was part of a class field trip to Colonial Williamsburg in May and is not able to safely consume food containing wheat or gluten due to having a severe autoimmune disorder.

“After J.D. was seated at a table with his class, management learned that he could not eat their food because of his disability and told the 11-year old that if he was going to eat his food, he needed to leave immediately,” the release stated. “Although his father and his teacher both attempted to reason with management, J.D. was made to leave the facility with his father and eat outside in the rain while his classmates remained inside.”

The foundation said in its response that the boy and his family “were not exposed to the elements, but instead ate in a covered pavilion.

“The Tavern’s manager saw them leave to eat outside and could tell they were upset, so she sent the only historical interpreter in the Tavern to entertain them while they ate,” the foundation’s reply to the lawsuit states. “As a result, they received more personal attention than any other guest in the Tavern that evening.”

In its response, Colonial Williamsburg said it only learned of the lawsuit against it through the media, and after Stein & Vargas issued a news release.

The foundation said in its response that it does not get regular federal or state money, but it does apply for and receives grants from federal government agencies, and occasionally contracts to provide services to the state and federal governments.

Colonial Williamsburg is asking that the complaint against it be dismissed and that it be granted costs and attorneys’ fees for defending itself against the lawsuit.

LaRoue can be reached by phone at 757-345-2342, by email at jlarouejr@vagazette.com@.

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