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Monday, February 26, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Farm That Barred Gay Wedding Alleges Bias

TROY, N.Y. (CN) - A rural farm couple who declined to host a same-sex wedding asked a New York court to overturn a ruling citing them for discrimination.

"When hard-working citizen farmers are forced by an administrative agency of the state to host in their own home a religious ceremony that violates their sincerely held spiritual beliefs, their government has failed them," Cynthia and Robert Gifford say in a complaint in Rensselaer County Supreme Court (emphasis in the original).

The couple runs Liberty Ridge Farm in Schaghticoke, a working farm about a half-hour north of Troy that has a business arm to book school tours, corporate meetings and parties. Fall harvest events, including a widely known, 11-acre cornfield maze, are available for general admission.

Though the Giffords had also booked weddings and receptions, they stopped doing so in August after the state Division of Human Rights deemed their business "a place of public accommodation" that "may not discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation."

The finding stemmed from complaints filed in October 2012 by Melisa Erwin and Jennifer McCarthy, alleging that the Giffords discriminated against them based on their sexual orientation.

New York had legalized same-sex marriages in 2011, but the women said Cynthia Gifford rebuffed their request to wed on her farm when she found out they were a same-sex couple.

Relying on the recommendation of an administrative law judge, the agency said that the Giffords' decision to turn away the women was "unlawful discrimination because same-sex couples are treated differently than opposite-sex couples."

The August decision assessed a civil fine of $10,000 and ordered the Giffords to pay $1,500 to each of the women for "mental pain and suffering."

In their Oct. 2 complaint, the Giffords seek to have the ruling overturned and the penalties returned. They want the appeal heard by the Appellate Division of state Supreme Court in Albany.

Gifford and his wife say they have been married for 30 years and are "Bible-believing Christians."

"The Giffords cannot fairly be characterized as bigots or anti-gay," the complaint states.

Gay people are not the issue, the couple says.

"Their objection is to an event - a same-sex wedding ceremony - being conducted in their own home and backyard," according to the complaint. "And their objection to that event is rooted not in animus or prejudice but in their sincerely held religious beliefs concerning what marriage is, and what God expects of them."

The 40-page complaint characterizes the case as "one of the first enforcement actions of the Marriage Equality Act through the public accommodations law," and contends the Division of Human Rights bungled it by deliberating "in a vacuum."

Citing exemptions to New York laws, the Giffords pointed to a section of public health law that bars the state from forcing parents to immunize their children contrary to religious belief and a section of social services law that allows recipients to refuse family planning services that would violate conscience.

"The ALJ [administrative law judge] and [Division of Human Rights] commissioner did not conduct a responsible and conscientious review and analysis of the inherent conflict between the public accommodations law and the Marriage Equality Act of 2011 as applied to marriage-related services for same-sex couples," the Giffords contend.

They say "it is clearly erroneous to conclude" that their home - a large three-story structure called The Barn, where weddings were held - "is a place of public accommodation at all times and for all purposes."

The complaint points out that deliberation of the case by the Division of Human Rights occurred as the U.S. Supreme Court in June decided Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores, which allows closely held businesses to object to government mandates based on their owners' religious beliefs.

Though an attorney for the Giffords "immediately" alerted the agency to the decision, the administrative law judge's recommended findings came out a few days later.

"The commissioner and the ALJ failed to even consider that the division has the burden to show that its purported interest in eliminating discrimination in public accommodations outweighs the negative impact on religious freedom in this case," the Giffords say.

James Trainor of Cutler, Trainor & Cutler in Malta represents the Giffords. His signature line on the complaint indicates "allied attorney, Alliance Defending Freedom." The Arizona-based group advocates "for the right of people to freely live out their faith," according to its website.

In the Division of Human Rights complaint, the New York Civil Liberties Union represented Jennifer McCarthy and Melisa Erwin, now known as Melisa McCarthy. The women, formerly of Albany, reside in New Jersey.

When the agency released its ruling in August, NYCLU Executive Director Donna Lieberman called it important to "help ensure that businesses understand New York law and treat all patrons with the dignity and respect they deserve."

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