A couple who declined to allow a same-sex wedding ceremony on their family farm in upstate New York filed an appeal today that their attorney says will challenge “every facet” of a recent discrimination ruling against them.
In September 2012, a lesbian couple approached Cynthia and Robert Gifford about holding their wedding on the Giffords’ Liberty Ridge Farm. The Giffords, who both grew up in Clifton Park, N.Y., declined, citing their religious beliefs that marriage is between one man and one woman.
Because Liberty Ridge Farm is open to the public for seasonal activities, such as its annual fall festival, the state of New York classifies it as a public accommodation that cannot discriminate on the basis of certain personal characteristics, including sexual orientation.
The lesbian couple, who recorded a telephone conversation with Cynthia Gifford, complained to the New York State Division of Human Rights, which is specifically chartered to prohibit “discrimination” based upon sexual orientation, among other characteristics.
In July, an administrative law judge found the Giffords had discriminated against the couple and ordered fines totaling $13,000—$1,500 mental anguish fine to each of the women and a $10,000 civil damages penalty to the state.
The Giffords didn’t know about the official complaint until a TV reporter showed up to interview them about it.
“There was the reporter and the camera person, and I thought, ‘Oh great, we’re going to get some publicity about our fall festival,’” Cynthia Gifford recalled. “And the reporter asked if we could step away from the customers—I did not understand why.”
The state human rights commissioner’s final order Aug. 8 required the Giffords to pay the $13,000 within 60 days, plus accrued interest of $195. The Giffords also had 60 days in which to appeal the ruling.
Gifford told The Daily Signal this week in an exclusive interview that she and her husband decided to fight the charges because they were “disappointed” by the judge’s narrow view of both the evidence and the law.
Their attorney, James Trainor, who is associated with Alliance Defending Freedom, said the family was “appealing every facet of the judge’s decision” and that he is confident their “constitutional rights and religious beliefs will be fully considered.”
Melisa Erwin and Jennifer McCarthy, the lesbian couple who filed the complaint, declined comment to The Daily Signal. They did speak out in a 2012 interview with WNYT.
The Giffords’ refusal to book their wedding ceremony “makes you feel like people out there are judging and think [a same-sex marriage] is wrong,” Erwin said.
“People are people and everyone should be treated fairly,” added McCarthy.
The Giffords contend their decision was not about the couple’s sexual orientation but about upholding their own religiously based views on marriage.
“We open our doors for a certain part of the year for everyone to come and enjoy God’s country that we’re so blessed to live on,” Cynthia Gifford said.
“We feel the judge did not consider our religious beliefs or the Constitution, so we were very disappointed in that fact and decided to appeal hoping we would have the opportunity for a court to consider our religious rights and constitutional rights,” she said.
We just believe that a marriage is between a man and a woman, and we do not want to hold a [same-sex] marriage ceremony here on our family farm because the state tells us we have to do it.
The $13,000 in fines “took a punch financially on us,” Cynthia Gifford said, and led them to another decision that will cost them more money: to stop holding wedding ceremonies at Liberty Ridge Farm.
Otherwise, she said, the Giffords would be required to institute anti-discrimination re-education classes and procedures for their staff.
The Giffords will continue to hold receptions at the farm, she said, but the decision “is likely to affect our business dramatically” since most area couples book ceremonies and receptions together.
Mariko Hirose, the lawyer for Erwin and McCarthy, declined to comment for The Daily Signal. In a previous interview with Religion News Service, Hirose said:
All New Yorkers are entitled to their own religious beliefs, but businesses cannot discriminate based on sexual orientation any more than they can based on race or national origin.
Lourdes Centeno, director of external relations at the New York State Division of Human Rights, declined to comment, saying “the order is out and that’s all we have available at the moment in terms of public information.”
Trainor, who doesn’t expect a ruling on the appeal until next July, said he will build his case around guarantees of religious freedom and free speech built into the federal and state constitutions.
[The judge’s decision] is forcing them to both practice their beliefs a certain way, as well as express or speak an affirmation of the state’s version of marriage by hosting these things in their home. What does that tell an observer? That they totally agree with it—that they’re totally in favor of it. So it forces that type of speech but it also doesn’t allow them to carry out and practice their own religious belief that marriage was designed to be, by God, between one man and one woman.
Ryan T. Anderson, who researches and writes about marriage and religious liberty as the William E. Simon Fellow at The Heritage Foundation, echoed Trainor’s argument.
“While Americans are free to live as they choose, no one should demand that government coerce others into celebrating their relationship,” he said. “All Americans should remain free to believe and act in the public square based on their beliefs about marriage without fear of government penalty.”
>>> Read More: Protecting Religious Liberty in the State Marriage Debate
Asked what she would say to Erwin and McCarthy about the Giffords’ decision to appeal, Cynthia Gifford said: “I would hope that they would understand that we respect everyone for who they are, and that we would like to have respect for our religious beliefs to be acknowledged as well.”
[This story was modified to correctly describe the deadline for the Giffords to pay the fines and appeal.]