Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Private farm broke the law when it refused to host same-sex wedding

The New York State Division of Human Rights ruled a few years ago that a farm in upstate New York broke the law when it refused to allow a same-sex wedding on its property. This is the kind of case that attracts attention now that same-sex couples are allowed to marry. An appellate court upholds the finding that the farm violated state law.

The case is Gifford v. McCarthy, decided by the Appellate Division, Third Department, on January 14. The Court resolves a host of issues, including the following:

1. Liberty Ridge Farm is a public accommodation under state law, and must therefore comply with state law prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. "In addition to harvesting and selling various crops to the public, Liberty Ridge rents portions of the farm to the public as a venue for, among other things, wedding ceremonies and receptions. It hosts both religious and secular wedding ceremonies on the farm. When providing a venue site, Liberty Ridge offers several wedding-related event services, including transportation of guests within the premises, a light beverage station, decoration and set-up services, flower arrangements and event coordination." As the Appellate Division sees it, "Liberty Ridge [is open] to the public as a venue for wedding ceremonies and receptions and offer[s] several wedding-related event services in connection therewith." "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."

2. The record also shows that the farm did in fact refuse to allow these women to marry at the facility, in violation of state law. "Cynthia Gifford displayed no unwillingness to allow the McCarthys to marry at the farm until Melisa McCarthy referred to her fiancée as a 'she.' Despite Cynthia Gifford's clear rejection of the McCarthys as customers, petitioners nonetheless argue that, in advising Melisa McCarthy that 'we do not hold same[-]sex marriages here at the farm,' they did not deny services to the McCarthys 'because of' their sexual orientation. Instead, petitioners claim that the decision to do so was based solely upon the Giffords' religious beliefs regarding same-sex marriage. Such attempts to distinguish between a protected status and conduct closely correlated with that status have been soundly rejected [by other courts]. 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.'"

In other words, this was not a legitimate religious objection by the property owners. Since the farm was a place of pubic accommodation, the womens' right to marry there overrides the religious objection. As the Court puts it, "the statute does not permit businesses to offer a 'limited menu' of goods or services to customers on the basis of a status that fits within one of the protected categories."

3. The farm raised First Amendment objections to the requirement that they have to marry the same-sex couple. The Free Exercise (of religion) clause is part of the First Amendment. Under Supreme Court authority, "the right of free exercise does not relieve an individual of the obligation to comply with a 'valid and neutral law of general applicability on the ground that the law proscribes (or prescribes) conduct that his [or her] religion prescribes (or proscribes)." Or, if the law applies to everyone, and does not single out a particular religion, then you have to comply with that law, even if complying with that law violates your religious principles. The Court says the farm is not required to "participate in the marriage of a same-sex couple. Indeed, the Giffords are free to adhere to and profess their religious beliefs that same-sex couples should not marry, but they must permit same-sex couples to marry on the premises if they choose to allow opposite-sex couples to do so."

4. The farm also raises a "compelled free speech" objection to all of this. The Third Department is not buying it. "Despite the Giffords' assertion that their direct participation in same-sex wedding ceremonies would 'broadcast to all who pass by the Farm' their support for same-sex marriage, reasonable observers would not perceive the Giffords' provision of a venue and services for a same-sex wedding ceremony as an endorsement of same-sex marriage. Like all other owners of public accommodations who provide services to the general public, the Giffords must comply with the statutory mandate prohibiting discrimination against customers on the basis of sexual orientation or any other protected characteristic. Under such circumstances, there is no real likelihood that the Giffords would be perceived as endorsing the values or lifestyle of the individuals renting their facilities as opposed to merely complying with anti-discrimination laws."

Judging from the out-of-state case law citations throughout the opinion, it looks like this is the first case in New York to address the issue of when a private business must allow or accommodate same-sex marriages. This is the issue de jure. As a national religion-rights law firm represents the farm, it is sure to ask the New York Court of Appeals to hear the case.

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