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Refusal to Host Same-Sex Marriage Ceremony

Posted on March 20, 2016

On January 14, 2016, the Appellate Division Third Department, affirmed a decision of the State Division of Human Rights (“SDHR”) finding a violation of the Human Rights Law due to discriminatory practices based upon sexual orientation.

The case, Gifford v. McCarthy, 520410, NYLJ 1202747185791 (App. Div. 3rd), dealt with discriminatory actions of the petitioners, Cynthia and Robert Gifford, who run Liberty Ridge Farm, a farm in Schaghticoke that both raises crops and is open to the public as a wedding and event venue. When respondent Melissa McCarthy spoke to petitioner Cynthia Gifford in 2012, she was told that the site did not host a same-sex marriage only after Melissa used the pronoun “she” to refer to her fiancée, Jennifer McCarthy. The McCarthys filed a complaint with the SDHR, and after a public hearing the Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) found that Liberty Ridge Farm is a place of public accommodation and directed that the Giffords pay $1,500 each to the McCarthys as well as a $10,000 civil fine and penalty for violating the anti-discrimination directives of the Human Rights Law. The Appellate Division, Third Department, took up the case after the ALJ’s decision, adopted by the Commissioner of Human Rights, was challenged by the Giffords.

As the first part of its analysis, the Appellate Division confirmed that Liberty Ridge Farm as a “place of public accommodation” pursuant to the Human Rights Law because it was a business providing food and other wedding-related services open to the general public. The farm was not a religious organization or a member organization. As the owners of a place of public accommodation, the Giffords were therefore prevented by the Human Rights Law from withholding or denying any accommodation or service of the farm to any person upon the basis of sexual orientation. Cynthia Gifford’s refusal to host the McCarthys’ wedding only upon Melissa’s mention that it was to be between two women violated this provision. The fact that the Giffords took this action based upon their religious belief did not excuse the action, as courts reject the distinction between a protected status (i.e., homosexuality) and closely correlated conduct (same-sex marriage). The Giffords’ actions were similarly not protected by the fact that they claimed to offer all other wedding-related services to the McCarthys aside from the ceremony, as the Human Rights Law specifically requires that all services be made available without exception.

The Giffords claimed a defense based upon the free speech and free exercise clauses of both the Federal and State constitutions, but these defenses were rejected wholesale by the Appellate Division. The Giffords’ claim that the decision violated their right to free exercise by compelling them to take part in ceremonies that violated their religious beliefs were unavailing because the Human Rights Law in question does not “target[] religious belief” and is not intended to infringe specifically upon religious practices. Similarly, the State’s interest in preventing discrimination was found to outweigh any incidental burden upon the Giffords’ beliefs. Similarly, the court found that requiring the Giffords to host same-sex weddings on the same terms they host any other weddings does not rise to the level of compelled speech, as it is not inherently expressive conduct and the Giffords remain free to express their opinions regarding those marriages. Finally, the court found that the Giffords’ business had not been formed for any expressive purpose, and as such there was no violation of right to expressive association by requiring that they conduct that business without any discriminatory actions. One important factor in this analysis was the fact that the Giffords did not otherwise inquire into any couple’s faith, religious views, or political views when booking events at Liberty Ridge Farm.

As a result of finding no violations of the Giffords’ free speech rights and upholding the ALJ’s finding of discrimination in violation of New York State’s Human Rights Law, the Appellate Division, Third Department, confirmed the compensatory damages of $1,500 to each of the McCarthys as well as a $10,000 civil fine for the violation of the law.

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