Christian NY Farm Owners Fined $13K for Refusing Same-Sex Wedding

Thursday, 21 Aug 2014 08:33 AM

By Todd Beamon

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A Christian couple who owns a farm in upstate New York has been fined $10,000 and ordered to pay two women $1,500 each for refusing to hold a same-sex wedding on their property in 2012.

New York State Administrative Law Judge Migdalia Pares ruled this week that the Liberty Ridge Farm near Albany, which is owned by Cynthia and Robert Gifford and is their home, was a place of public accommodation and subject to the anti-discrimination provisions of the state's Human Rights Law.

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The judge's decision was first reported by The New York Law Journal.

The Giffords rent their farm for about a dozen weddings a year, Religion News Service reports. They also hold other events there such as birthday parties and corporate events.

In 2012, Jennifer McCarthy and Melisa Erwin, a same-sex couple from Newark, N.J., sought to rent the Giffords' farm for their wedding.

Cynthia Gifford offered the farm for a reception, but not for the ceremony, RNS reports. Those are typically held on the first floor of the Giffords' home or in a nearby field.

When McCarthy asked Gifford whether it was lawful to have a policy barring same-sex weddings, she responded that "we are a private business," according to court documents cited by RNS.

The Giffords, who attend a community church, cited their religious beliefs on traditional marriage in declining the same-sex couple's request, said James Trainor, their attorney. "It literally hits close to home," he told RNS.

In her decision, Pares ruled that Liberty Ridge was a public accommodation — and not "distinctly private" — because it regularly collected for space, facilities, services, and meals, RNS reports.

"That the Giffords also reside at Gifford Barn, does not render it private," the judge said in her ruling, according to RNS. As such, the Giffords "unlawfully discriminated against complainants solely on the basis of their sexual orientation."

The farm's owners were ordered to pay $13,000 in fines and restitution, the state Division of Human Rights ruled. McCarthy and Erwin, who are now married, filed a complaint with the agency.

The Giffords are considering their legal options, Trainor said.

"Liberty Ridge Farm … has employed gay people and has conducted events for same-sex couples," Trainor told RNS. "The Giffords' objection was to hosting and participating in the wedding ceremony itself and not to providing service in general to lesbians."

While the Liberty Farms case represents the most recent legal challenge to private businesses that provide wedding services but refuse to provide them to same-sex couples, it is unique because public accommodation laws usually don't apply to private residences, said Adam Winkler, a law professor at the University of California-Los Angeles.

"It is just another case in the many battles in the fight over public accommodation of same-sex marriages," Winkler told RNS. "If you want to open yourself up to the public, there's a cost, which is that you can't discriminate."

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