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NYSNYS NEWS: Appellate Division rules against Rensselaer County farmers who said no gay marriages at their wedding venue.
NYSNYS NEWS: Appellate Division rules against Rensselaer County farmers who said no gay marriages at their wedding venue.

By Kyle Hughes

ALBANY, N.Y. (January 14) — The owners of Liberty Ridge Farm in Rensselaer County lost an appeal Thursday in the court case brought by a same-sex couple who sued after they were were told they could not host their wedding there.

The Appellate Division of State Supreme Court ruled that the religious beliefs of Cynthia and Robert Gifford do not override the civil rights of Melisa McCarthy and Jennifer McCarthy, the same-sex couple who tried to book the Schaghticoke farm as a wedding venue.

According to Thursday’s ruling, Cynthia Gifford told McCarthy in a phone conversation that a same-sex wedding was “a problem … it's a decision that my husband and I have made that that's not what we wanted to have on the farm."

The state Division of Human Rights (SDHR) sided with the couple, and assessed $13,000 in fines against the Giffords. A state administrative law judge “found that Liberty Ridge is a place of
public accommodation within the meaning of the Human Rights Law and that petitioners illegally discriminated against the McCarthys on the basis of their sexual orientation,” the Appellate Division said in its ruling Thursday.

“While we recognize that the burden placed on the Giffords’ right to freely exercise their religion is not inconsequential, it cannot be overlooked that SDHR's determination does not require them to participate in the marriage of a same-sex couple,” the court ruled. “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.”

Gay marriage has been legal in New York state since 2011, when it was approved by Gov. Andrew Cuomo and the Legislature. In June 2015, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled same-sex marriage is legal in all states because any ban violates due process and equal protection guarantees under the Constitution.

The Appellate Division judges observed that Liberty Ridge is “not a member organization, a non-profit organization or a religious entity. 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.”

The decision was hailed by the New York Civil Liberties Union.

“The McCarthys were denied the opportunity to celebrate their marriage at Liberty Ridge, but today we can join them in celebrating the court’s affirmation that all New Yorkers deserve to be treated with dignity and respect,” said NYCLU Executive Director Donna Lieberman.

The Giffords can still appeal the case to the Court of Appeals, the highest court in New York.