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Marriage Equality

N.Y. Wedding Venue Now Claims 'Targeting' by Lesbian Couple

N.Y. Wedding Venue Now Claims 'Targeting' by Lesbian Couple


The owners of Liberty Ridge Farm, in appealing a discrimination verdict, say they were set up by the couple. Not so, the women respond.


The owners of an upstate New York wedding venue are appealing a finding that they violated state antidiscrimination law by turning away a same-sex couple -- and in the process, they are claiming that the couple knew in advance that they would refuse and targeted them in an "orchestrated set-up."

Last August the New York State Division of Human Rights ruled that Robert and Cythia Gifford, the husband-and-wife owners of Liberty Ridge Farm, committed unlawful discrimination when they declined to host the wedding of Melisa Erwin and Jennifer McCarthy, with the Giffords citing their religious-based opposition to same-sex marriage. The Giffords rent out the farm for weddings and other events. An administrative law judge with the Division of Human Rights said the farm qualified as a public accommodation and therefore was subject to state law prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation and ordered the Giffords to pay fines and restitution totaling $13,000.

The antigay Alliance Defending Freedom, a legal group representing the Giffords, filed the opening brief in the appeal Thursday with the New York Supreme Court (in New York State, the Supreme Court is not the highest court; that is the Court of Appeals). The brief argues that the farm is not a public accommodation and that the judge's order violates the Giffords' religious freedom.

The Alliance Defending Freedom also claims that Erwin and McCarthy knew the Giffords opposed same-sex marriage yet inquired about the venue anyway: "The evidence ... indicates that Respondents were aware of the Giffords' beliefs and chose specifically to call and record Mrs. Gifford for the purposes of documenting the Giffords' policy. ... Such an orchestrated set-up can hardly form the basis for 'mental anguish' and suffering" as cited by McCarthy and Erwin.

This claim is the subject of an article in The Washington Times, a paper noted for a conservative bent in its news coverage as well as its opinion pages. "The argument illustrates a common complaint among Christian business owners: They are deliberately sought out by gay couples even though most photographers, bakers and florists would be happy to provide services for same-sex weddings," the Times reports.

"I think in many of these cases, they know or at least suspect that these are folks with religious objections," Alliance Defending Freedom senior counsel Byron Babione told the paper. "We think that's the case here, and we think that's an uncontested fact."

In response, New York Civil Liberties Union attorney Mariko Hirose, representing Erwin and McCarthy, gave this statement to The Advocate:

"The brief raises arguments that have been rejected before in the context of many other discrimination cases in the past. New York State passed laws to secure a society in which private businesses that serve the public must be open to all members of the public regardless of sexual orientation, gender, race and other protected characteristics, and religious beliefs of Liberty Ridge Farm owners do not trump that law.

"The brief mischaracterizes and undervalues the pain that the McCarthys experienced from being rejected from the wedding venue of their top choice just because of who they are. Testimony at the hearing illustrated that the McCarthys were incredibly excited about celebrating their wedding at Liberty Ridge Farm, a venue that fit the exact image of what they were looking for in their wedding. After they shared their excitement with their parents, one of the mothers warned them that the venue may not be willing to host their wedding. But the young couple thought this was a misunderstanding. They were shocked and deeply upset when they were told on the phone by the proprietor that Liberty Ridge would not take their business because of who they are."

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