New York Wedding Venue Loses Appeal To Refuse Serving Same-Sex Couples

CREDIT: AP Photo/Mike Groll

Robert and Cynthia Gifford

Liberty Ridge Farm in upstate New York just lost an appeal in its effort to justify discrimination against same-sex couples. An appeals court unanimously affirmed the State Division of Human Rights’ determination that the couple who owned the wedding venue, Robert and Cynthia Gifford, violated the state’s nondiscrimination law when they refused to host a wedding for Melissa and Jennifer McCarthy back in 2012.

Represented by the conservative legal juggernaut the Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), the Giffords argued that because their farm is private property, they should not be considered a public accommodation. They also argued that they did not actually engage in discrimination based on sexual orientation, and that being compelled to host a same-sex wedding violated their freedoms of religion and speech. The court rejected these claims outright.

Because Liberty Ridge is open to the public as a venue for wedding ceremonies and receptions, its facilities “fall comfortably within the broad definition of ‘place of public accommodation,'” the court wrote. “The fact that the wedding ceremonies occur on private property and pursuant to a written contract does not, as petitioners contend, remove Liberty Ridge’s facilities from the reach of the Human Rights Law; the critical factor is that the facilities are made available to the public at large.”

ADF and the Giffords argued that they had not actually engaged in discrimination based on sexual orientation, but made a decision “based solely upon the Giffords’ religious beliefs regarding same-sex marriage.” The court found this distinction wholly unconvincing, as many other courts across the country have. “Such attempts to distinguish between a protected status and conduct closely correlated with that status have been soundly rejected.” It doesn’t matter that they would “happily” host receptions or parties for same-sex couples, because offering a “limited menu” of services to one protected group compared to others is still a clear violation of the law.

In terms of religious freedom, the court was unconvinced that the Human Rights Law unfairly targeted the couple. “Rather, the Human Rights Law generally forbids all discrimination against a protected class in places of public accommodation regardless of the motivation. The fact that some religious organizations and educational facilities are exempt from the statute’s public accommodation provision does not, as petitioners claim, demonstrate that it is not neutral or generally applicable.” Besides, the Giffords remain free “to adhere to and profess their religious beliefs that same-sex couples should not marry.”

Their free speech claim fails for the same reason. The state “does not compel the Giffords to endorse, espouse, or promote same-sex marriages, nor does it require them to recite or display any message at all.” They can continue to express opposition to same-sex marriage, even as they are required to serve all couples equally by providing wedding services.

Since first losing their case to the State Division of Human Rights, the Giffords stopped hosting wedding ceremonies. They still host wedding receptions, which they market to “bridal couples.”

ADF bemoaned the loss, with legal counsel Caleb Dalton claiming, “The government went after both this couple’s freedom and their ability to make a living simply for adhering to their faith on their own property. The court should have rejected this unwarranted and unconstitutional government intrusion, so we will consult with our client regarding appeal.”

The ACLU, conversely, celebrated the win. The McCarthys remain on track to receive the $1,500 in compensatory damages ordered by the original Administrative Law Judge.

Other states are considering legislation that undermines the kind of protections New York has in place, or specifically overrides them in an attempt to perpetuate discrimination against LGBT people.