Aug Sept 2016
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N.Y. Supreme Court: Upstate Farm Can't Refuse Same-Sex Weddings

Liberty Ridge Farm

A three-judge panel of the New York Supreme Court upheld a lower court's ruling against the Christian owners of an Albany farm who turned away a same-sex couple hoping to wed at their venue in 2013. 

The Appellate Division of the New York Supreme Court handed down its ruling today against Robert and Cynthia Gifford, who own Liberty Ridge Farm in the town of Schaghticoke, N.Y.

As an administrative law judge concluded in 2014, the court determined that the owners did violate the state's Human Rights Law when they told Melissa and Jennifer McCarthy that, although the farm was available to the public as a wedding venue, the Giffords would "not hold same-sex weddings." The Giffords reportedly offered to host the couple's reception, but would not allow the ceremony to take place anywhere on the nearly 100-acre property.

After the New York State Division of Human Rights ruled in August 2014 that the Giffords had violated state law, an administrative law judge arrived at the same conclusion, and ordered the Giffords to pay fines and restitution totaling $13,000. The Giffords were also ordered to cease and desist the discriminatory treatment prohibited under New York's statewide nondiscrimination law. To comply with that order, the Giffords stopped hosting any weddings on the property, rather than serve all couples equally. 

Represented by the antigay group Alliance Defending Freedom, the self-proclaimed Christian couple appealed the decision to the New York Supreme Court. (In New York State, the Supreme Court is not the highest court; that is the Court of Appeals.)

In their appeal, the Giffords argued that the venue was not subject to the state's Human Rights Law, because their farm did not constitute a place of public accommodation. They further argued that, even if Liberty Ridge was bound by the state's nondiscrimination law, the couple's refusal to host the McCarthy's wedding does not qualify as unlawful discrimination. 

That refusal was not based on the women's sexual orientation, the Giffords argued, but rather on their own religious views about marriage. The Giffords maintained they would have gladly offered to host a wedding reception or other celebration featuring a same-sex couple. 

But the court rejected those claims, determining that "Liberty Ridge's wedding facilities fall comfortably within the broad definition of a 'place of public accommodation.'" 

Because the Giffords advertise the farm, and make the space available to members of the general public, the court determined that the facility is indeed subject to the state's human rights law, even though it's located on private property owned by the Giffords. Similarly, the court rejected the Giffords's argument that the refusal of service was based on their religious convictions, as same-sex couples exercising their legal right to marry is inherently tied to their sexual orientation. In the eyes of the law, rejecting a wedding because it features two women is effectively the same thing as refusing to serve someone because she is a lesbian. 

In addition to the harm done to the McCarthys (who married at another farm in upstate New York in August 2013), the court stressed that the antigay discrimination perpetrated by the Giffords harms New Yorkers as a whole. 

“Discriminatory denial of equal access to goods, services, and other advantages made available to the public not only ‘deprives persons of their individual dignity,’ but also ‘denies society the benefits of wide participation in political, economic, and cultural life,'” the ruling reads.

"New York chose to guarantee a society where lunch counters would serve black and white customers and businesses would not discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation, and all of us benefit from these protections,” said Mariko Hirose, senior staff attorney at the New York Civil Liberties Union and lead counsel on the case representing the McCarthys, in a statement. "We’re glad the court upheld longstanding laws against discrimination, and we’re proud of the McCarthys for standing up for equal treatment of all New Yorkers."

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