ALBANY, N.Y. (CN) - A New York appeals court upheld $13,000 in fines and damages levied against a rural farm couple for refusing to host a same-sex wedding.
Cynthia and Robert Gifford book weddings and receptions on their picturesque Liberty Ridge Farm near Troy, N.Y. Liberty Ridge is a working farm that also schedules school tours, parties, corporate meetings and general-admission fall harvest events.
But when Melisa McCarthy, then Melisa Erwin, called in 2012 about having her wedding and reception there, she was told the farm would not host a same-sex ceremony.
She and her fiancee, Jennifer McCarthy, then filed complaints with the New York State Division of Human Rights, which determined the farm was a public place and that the Giffords discriminated against the women based on their sexual orientation.
The agency awarded them $1,500 each in compensatory damages and fined the Giffords $10,000.
The Giffords then sued the agency in Rensselaer County Supreme Court, claiming their wedding facilities were not a public venue and that no discrimination had occurred.
The case was transferred to the Appellate Division's Third Department in Albany, which stood behind the Division of Human Rights on Thursday.
"Liberty Ridge's wedding facilities fall comfortably within the broad definition of 'place of public accommodation,'" Presiding Justice Karen Peters wrote. "The fact that the wedding ceremonies occur on private property and pursuant to a written contract does not, as petitioners contend, remove Liberty Ridge's facilities from the reach of human rights law; the critical factor is that the facilities are made available to the public at large."
The unanimous five-judge panel also ruled that the agency's finding of discrimination was rational.
The record "clearly reflects" that Cynthia Gifford showed "no unwillingness" in scheduling the McCarthys' wedding until Melisa "referred to her fiancée as a 'she,'" according to Thursday's ruling.
While the Giffords claimed they turned away the women based on religious beliefs about same-sex marriage, "[s]uch attempts to distinguish between a protected status and conduct closely correlated with that status have been soundly rejected," Peters wrote, citing U.S. Supreme Court precedent.
"The act of entering into a same-sex marriage is 'conduct that is inextricably tied to sexual orientation' and, for purposes of the human rights law, we hold that there is 'no basis for distinguishing between discrimination based on sexual orientation and discrimination based on someone's conduct of publicly committing to a person of the same sex,'" the judge added. "Accordingly, petitioners discriminated on the basis of sexual orientation when they refused to host the McCarthys' wedding on the premises."
The panel found that conclusion was not changed by the Giffords' claim that they objected only to having a same-sex wedding ceremony on their property and would "happily" host same-sex wedding receptions, parties or other events.
State law prohibits the denial of "'any of the accommodations, advantages, facilities or privileges' furnished by a place of public accommodation," the ruling states, quoting the law. (Emphasis in original.)
"Thus, petitioners' purported willingness to offer some services to the McCarthys does not cure their refusal to provide a service that was offered to the general public," Peters wrote.
The Giffords claimed the fines and damages assessed by the state violated their constitutional right to the free exercise of religion. But the panel noted that right does not relieve individuals of the obligation to comply with laws that are "valid and neutral."
No religious beliefs are targeted or restricted by human rights law, nor do the findings by the Division of Human Rights mandate that the Giffords participate in the marriage of a same-sex couple, the 14-page ruling states.
"Indeed, the Giffords are free to adhere to and profess their religious beliefs that same-sex couples should not marry, but they must permit same-sex couples to marry on the premises if they choose to allow opposite-sex couples to do so," Peters wrote.
In addition, these findings do not violate the Giffords' free-speech rights by making it look as if they endorse same-sex marriage by hosting such wedding ceremonies, the panel ruled.
"The determination simply requires them to abide by the law and offer the same goods and services to same-sex couples that they offer to other couples," the ruling states.
Joining Peters in the ruling were Justices William McCarthy, John Egan Jr., Eugene Devine and Christine Clark.
J. Caleb Dalton, the lawyer who argued before the court in November on behalf of the Giffords, said an appeal will be considered.
"The government went after both this couple's freedom and their ability to make a living simply for adhering to their faith on their own property," Dalton, of the Alliance Defending Freedom in Scottsdale, Ariz., said in a statement posted on the group's website. "The court should have rejected this unwarranted and unconstitutional government intrusion."
The case drew amicus briefs from several civil rights groups, including the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund, National Center for Lesbian Rights, and the Anti-Defamation League.
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