State fines upstate farm that rebuffed same-sex wedding

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Liberty Ridge Farm (Liberty Ridge Farm)
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ALBANY—Two farmers in rural Rensselaer County must pay $13,000 in fines and restitution after they rebuffed a lesbian couple who inquired about getting married at their farm, a state agency ruled.

Jennifer McCarthy and her now-wife Melisa (nee Erwin) found Liberty Ridge Farm, which overlooks the Hudson River in Schaghticoke, several miles north of Troy, on the internet and hoped to rent it for their wedding ceremony and reception. Cynthia Gifford, who along with her husband offer a corn maze, market and events at the 100-acre farm, told Melisa McCarthy her same-sex marriage would cause “a little bit of a problem” because the Giffords have a “specific religious belief regarding marriage,” according to court papers.

McCarthy and her wife brought a complaint in conjunction with the New York Civil Liberties Union, saying Liberty Ridge Farm was a public accommodation and the Giffords' actions were unlawfully discriminatory under state law.

While the McCarthys never entered into a rental contract for the facility, an administrative law judge ruled Gifford “implicitly rescinded the invitation” when she learned Melisa McCarthy's spouse-to-be was also a woman.

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“The policy to not allow same-sex marriage ceremonies on Liberty Ridge Farm is a denial of access to a place of public accommodation,” Judge Migdalia Pares wrote. She said the Giffords should pay $3,000 to the women—$1,500 each—for “mental anguish each suffered as a result of respondents' unlawfully discriminatory conduct.” Citing “the goal of deterrence” as well as the Giffords' clear stance against same-sex weddings, Pares fined the Giffords an additional $10,000.

Pares' order was adopted formally last week by Human Rights commissioner Helen Diane Foster.

Same-sex marriage was legalized in 2011, after a push from Democratic Governor Andrew Cuomo. Many Republicans and conservatives oppose the law, arguing it infringes on private businesses. Democrats have always responded to these charges by noting existing laws for any public accommodation prevent discrimination against interracial couples, say, or couples of different religions.

The Giffords' lawyer, James Trainor, said the couple is “evaluating” a possible appeal, and said he was surprised the ruling to did not incorporate the U.S. Supreme Court's recent Hobby Lobby decision, in which justices said a closely-held company could deny some forms of contraception to its employees because they conflicted with the religious beliefs of its owners.

“We're disappointed that neither the judge nor the commissioner even mentioned the Gifford's … First Amendment rights, including the right not to be compelled to participate in a religious ceremony which violates their own religious beliefs,” Trainor wrote in an email. He said the monetary penalty is a “significant burden” to the family that is “disproportionate to the single interaction between the parties - a telephone call of several minutes duration.”

NYCLU executive director Donna Lieberman hailed the decision.

“Marriage should be a time of celebration, not discrimination,” said NYCLU Executive Director Donna Lieberman. “This ruling sets an important precedent protecting the rights of LGBT New Yorkers, and will help ensure that businesses understand New York law and treat all patrons with the dignity and respect they deserve.”

Here is the full decision: http://bit.ly/1mNyGOf