Upstate New York Farm Must Allow Gay Weddings
Jennifer, left, and Melisa McCarthy
Photo by Kelly Pfeister courtesy of the NYCLU
An upstate New York farm has been fined by the state Division on Human Rights for refusing to host a wedding for a lesbian couple two years ago. Liberty Ridge Farm is located in Schaghticoke, New York, a 7,000-person town some 30 miles north of Albany. When Melisa Erwin and Jennie McCarthy decided to get married in 2012, as they told the press at the time, they thought Liberty Ridge would be the perfect place: they'd gotten engaged at an apple orchard, and getting hitched in Liberty Ridge's barn seemed like the perfect continuation to their rural theme. (According to court filings, the farm hosts blueberry-picking, pig races, and something called "pumpkin cannon shows.")
The couple's exuberance lasted right up until McCarthy called Cynthia Gifford, one half of the husband and wife team who owns the farm. Gifford invited McCarthy and her intended to visit the farm, until, a moment later, McCarthy referred to her fiancee as "she." Gifford immediately replied that there was "a little bit of a problem."
According to court documents, Gifford told McCarthy, "We do not hold same-sex marriages here at the barn." (McCarthy was recording the phone conversation, so we have a pretty good idea what was said.)
Incredulous, McCarthy asked if that was legal. "Yeah," Gifford replied. "We're a private business." Gifford added that she and her husband Robert decided "that's not what we want to have on the farm."
After that, McCarthy and Erwin stopped looking for wedding venues altogether, before eventually finding the heart to continue. They were married at the Olde Tater Barn in Central Bridge, New York in August 2013. (Erwin has since changed her surname to McCarthy as well.) In the meantime, represented by the New York Civil Liberties Union, they filed a human rights complaint with the state against the Giffords and Liberty Ridge. New York's human rights law says a place of "public accommodation, resort or amusement" can't discriminate against someone based on sexual orientation. Liberty Ridge isn't a church; the farm allows anyone to book a wedding there, making their no-gays policy plainly illegal.
But the Giffords, who were represented by attorney James Trainor Cutler Trainor & Cutler, argued that while the couple was welcome to visit the farm and participate in all the blueberry picking and pumpkin-cannoning their hearts desired, the Constitution protected the Liberty Ridge owners from having to host a wedding they objected to.
Other Christian answers to the NYCLU agreed. "The owners, Robert and Cynthia Gifford, object to gay 'marriage' based on their values and religious convictions," the New Yorker's Family Research Foundation wrote on their website. "They still have children at home, and believe that hosting a same-sex "marriage" would send the wrong message to the teenagers they are raising. The question before the State Division of Human Rights is whether or not homosexual rights will trump religious liberty."
Another Christian legal institution who took an interest in the case implied that the McCarthys had deliberately decided to try to host their wedding there, despite having heard that Liberty Ridge was not amenable to same-sex weddings. Stephen P. Hayfrod, the legislative director for New Yorkers for Constitutional Freedoms, attended a hearing in the case and wrote on their blog that the case "raised a real question about whether the two ladies really wanted to have their ceremony at the Farm, or whether this whole thing was a set-up to go after a family business that holds traditional moral beliefs about marriage."
Administrative Law Judge Migdalia Peres, who heard the case, didn't buy that argument. In a July decision, announced the NYCLU today, she ordered Liberty Ridge to "cease and desist from discriminatory practices in public accommodations." They're also ordered to pay the McCarthys $1,500 each, and a fine of $10,000 to the state. They'll also need to prove to the Division on Human Rights that they're conducting anti-discrimination training at their workplace. Finally, they have to display a copy of this poster somewhere prominent, in case any other LGBT couples attempt to get married in a lovely bucolic setting featuring pigs, blueberries, and open hostility.
The full ruling from Judge Peres is on the following page.
An earlier version of this story misidentified the attorney who represented the Giffords in this case. It also stated that Stephen P. Hayford of New Yorkers for Constitutional Freedoms had testified during a hearing; he did not. His comments were made on the group's blog afterwards. The Voice and the author regret the error.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter