March 2016 Church & State - March 2016

N.Y. Wedding Venue May Not Discriminate Against Same-Sex Couples, Court Says

  AU admin

A New York court has ruled that a farm frequently used for weddings may not invoke “religious freedom” as a defense in refusing service to same-sex couples.

“Discriminatory denial of equal access to goods, services and other advantages made available to the public not only ‘deprives persons of their individual dignity,’ but also ‘denies society the benefits of wide participation in political, economic, and cultural life,’” the Appellate Division of the New York Supreme Court ruled in a Jan. 14 decision.

In 2012, Liberty Ridge Farm in Schaghticoke, N.Y., refused to allow Jennifer and Melissa McCarthy to have their wedding at the property when the farm’s owners learned the couple is gay. The business owners cited their religious beliefs as justification for the refusal, and in response, the rejected couple filed a complaint.

In 2014, the New York Division of Human Rights ruled in favor of the McCarthys, finding that the farm violated the state’s Sexual Orientation Non-Discrimination Act. The farm, which promotes itself as a wedding venue on its website, was ordered to pay a $10,000 fine and pay $1,500 to each of the women for emotional damages. The farm’s owners appealed the ruling, arguing that they have a religious freedom right to discriminate against same-sex couples.

“We are so thrilled with the news we received today,” said the McCarthys in a joint statement released through the New York Civil Liberties Union, which litigated the case on their behalf. “This decision not only recognizes how discrimination has affected the two of us, it also helps to protect others from being targeted by the same type of discrimination. We are pleased that this difficult experience has been able to set further precedent that discrimination is unacceptable, and grateful that going forward other couples will be less likely to have the joy of their wedding planning tarnished by discrimination.”

Americans United filed a friend-of-the court brief last year in support of the McCarthys, who married in 2013. 

“The various parts of the First Amendment speak with one voice: a secular commercial business that provides services to the public has no free-speech, free-exercise, or free-association right that would exempt it from a legal requirement that it treat customers of all sexual orientations equally,” the brief stated.

The case is Gifford v. McCarthy.

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