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Religious Tolerance logo

About the religious freedom ... to discriminate:

Part 1 of 3 parts.

2016-JAN: A "freedom-to-discriminate"
court case from upstate New York State
found in favor of a same-sex couple.
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We use the acronym "SSM" to represent "same-sex marriage."
"LGBT" refers to lesbians, gays, bisexuals, transgender persons
and transsexuals. "LGB" refers to lesbians, gays, and bisexuals.

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wedding symbol 2012: A same-sex couple was denied a venue to hold their marriage ceremony and reception:

Cynthia Gifford and Robert Gifford own a 100 acre farm in Schaghticoke, NY. It is located North of Albany in upstate New York state. They operate Liberty Ridge Farm as a profit-making, limited liability corporation (LLC). It is "... not a member organization, a non-profit organization or a
religious entity. 1

They grow crops there and also have wide-ranging facilities for the public's enjoyment including:

"... an 11 acre cornfield maze, pumpkin picking, cider donuts, shows, and over 20 hands-on activities with plenty of space to accommodate families, friends and groups of any size." 2

They rent facilities at the farm to the public as a venue for various events, including wedding ceremonies and receptions. Some of those weddings were religious and others were secular in nature. They once described it as a:

"One-of-a-kind ... pituresque setting for weddings all yaar round." 3

A same-sex couple, Melisa McCarthy and Jennifer McCarthy became engaged in 2011-OCT. They are unrelated to two other McCarthy's: Jenny -- the anti-vaccination advocate -- and Melissa -- the famous Hollywood actress. About a year later, Melisa phoned Cynthia Gifford to discuss renting a venue for her upcoming wedding and reception. The conversation went well until Melisa referred to her fiancée as a "she." Cynthia said that this represented:

"a problem." [The farm] ... did not hold same-sex marriages. ... it's a decision that my husband and I have made that that's not what we wanted to have on the farm." 1

The Giffords are Roman Catholics, and their Christian denomination has been one of the main opponents of marriage equality, worldwide.

Later, the McCarthy couple filed a complaint with the State Division of Human Rights (SDHR) alleging that the Giffords engaged in unlawful discriminatory practices based on the sexual orientation of their customers. After an investigation and public hearing, an Administrative Law Judge found that:

"Liberty Ridge is a place of public accommodation within the meaning of the Human Rights Law and that petitioners illegally discriminated against the McCarthys on the basis of their sexual orientation." 1

gavelThe Judge recommended that:

  • The McCarthys each be awarded $1,500 in compensatory damages.

  • The Gifford's receive a $10,000 civil fine and penalty.

  • That the Gifford's "cease and desist from engaging in discriminatory practices and establish anti-discrimination training and procedures at the farm."

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2016-JAN-14: The Administrative Law Judge's ruling is appealed:

The judge's decision was appealed by the farm owners to a New York State Appeals Court.

We have included here a more detailed explanation of this case, compared to others that we have described, for a number of reasons:

  • The details of the case are very similar to many other human rights cases ranging from marriage photography to wedding cake baking.

  • The lawyer from Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) defended the Gifford's using an unusually high number of arguments.

The Court noted that the State's Human Rights Law (Executive Law § 290 [3]):

"... was enacted 'to assure that every individual within this state is afforded an equal opportunity to enjoy a full and productive life' by 'eliminat[ing] and prevent[ing] discrimination in employment, in places of public accommodation, resort or amusement, in educational institutions, in public services, in housing accommodations, in commercial space and in credit transactions'." 1

This law states that it is an:

"... unlawful discriminatory practice [for any] ... owner, lessee, proprietor, manager, superintendent, agent, or employee of any place of public accommodation, resort or amusement, because of the . . . sexual orientation . . . of any person, directly or indirectly, to refuse, withhold from or deny to such person any of the accommodations, advantages, facilities or privileges thereof." 1

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The Gifford's defense was provided by Alliance Defending Freedom:

Lawyer J. Caleb Dalton of defended the farm owners as petitioners in the appeal. ADF is a conservative Christian group whose main caseload in recent years appears to be to defend other conservative Christians who own public accommodations and who want to discriminate against lesbians, gays, bisexuals, transgender persons and transsexuals.

He based his case on a number of arguments:

  • 1. The Human Rights Law does not apply in this case: This is because the wedding ceremonies occur on private property, and pursuant to a written contract.

    The court rejected this defense, stating that for a public accommodation:

    "... the critical factor is that the facilities are made available to the public at large." 1

Presumably, the owners of Liberty Ridge could have previously entered into agreements with conservative religious congregations in the area who oppose same-sex marriages. They might have then opened their facilities for marriages only to engaged couples approved and referred to them by these congregations. Then, the churches may have been free to discriminate on any basis: the couple's sexual orientation, gender identity, skin color, race, previous divorce status, religion, religious denomination, etc. before referring some couples to the farm. However, because the farm had offered their services to the general public, the Appeals Court decided that the owners were required to obey the Human Rights Law of New York State.

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  • 2. The petitioners did not refuse to rent their wedding venue to the McCarthys because of the latter's sexual orientation. Rather, the couple's decision was based solely on their religious beliefs regarding two same-sex persons marrying each other.

The court quoted two prior cases: Elane Photography, LLC v Willock, and Craig v Masterpiece Cakeshop, Inc. The court dismissed the ADF's argument, saying that:

"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.' Accordingly, petitioners discriminated on the basis of sexual orientation when they refused to host the McCarthys' wedding on the premises."

  • 3. The owners of Liberty Ridge were open to having the McCarthy's reception at their farm, as long as the actual marriage ceremony was held somewhere else. The court found that this policy did not impact on this case because the Human Rights Law makes it unlawful to refuse, withhold from, or deny, on the grounds of of sexual orientation:

    "... 'any of the accommodations, advantages, facilities or privileges' furnished by a place of public accommodation,"

    to the general public.

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This topic continues in the next essay.

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References used:

The following information source was used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlink is not necessarily still active today.

  1. Cynthia Gifford et al v. Melisa McCarthy et al., NY Supreme court, Appellate Division, Third judicial Dept., 2016-JAN-14, at: http://decisions.courts.state.ny.us/
  2. "Welcome to the Farm!," Liberty Ridge Farm, at: http://libertyridgefarmny.com/
  3. James Esseks, "Win for LGBT Equality: Court Says No To Religious Exemption," American Civil Liberties Association, 2016-JAN-15, at: https://www.aclu.org/

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How you may have arrived here:

Home > Religious freedom > Freedom to Discriminate > here

Home > Important essays > Religious freedom > Freedom to Discriminate > here

Home > Religious information > Religious freedom > Freedom to Discriminate > here

Home > Human rights > Religious freedom > Freedom to Discriminate > here

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Copyright © 2016 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance.
First posted: 2016-JAN-21
Latest update: 2016-JAN-22
Author: B.A. Robinson

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