Commercial wedding venues cannot discriminate against same-sex couples, the New York Civil Liberties Union and the American Civil Liberties Union will argue today, asking the Appellate Division to affirm the State Division of Human Rights holding that Albany’s Liberty Ridge Farm illegally rejected Melisa and Jennifer McCarthy because of their sexual orientation.
“We were so excited when we found Liberty Ridge that we called our mothers and told them we knew where we were getting married,” said Jennifer McCarthy. “When we were rejected for being a same-sex couple, beyond losing what we thought was the perfect venue, I felt judged and dismissed for who I was and for my relationship. Nobody should feel like that.”
“It is difficult to describe how heartbreaking it is when someone says to you that, because you are marrying someone of the same sex, you cannot have the options that heterosexual couples have,” said Melisa McCarthy. “We will do whatever we can to make sure that no other couple has to deal with the same feelings of sadness and anxiety that we wrestled with.”
The McCarthys were thrilled to find what they thought was the wedding venue of their dreams when they discovered Liberty Ridge Farm, a “one-of-a-kind” wedding venue that boasts it is a “picturesque setting for weddings all year round!” But the farm’s owners, Cynthia and Robert Gifford, rejected them, stating they do not allow same-sex couples to get married at their business because they oppose same-sex marriage. But as the New York State Division of Human Rights ruled, under New York’s Human Rights Law, public businesses cannot discriminate on the basis of race, sexual orientation, national origin or other protected classes.
While all Americans are entitled to express their personal beliefs, no court has ever held that a business has a First Amendment right to discriminate in violation of the law in the commercial marketplace. For over 150 years, states have passed laws saying that if a commercial business voluntarily decides to open its doors to the public, they cannot discriminate when deciding which customers they will or will not serve. New York is no exception: Through its Human Rights Law, New York explicitly chose to guarantee a society where lunch counters would serve Black and white customers and businesses would not discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation.
“No one should be afraid of celebrating their marriage because they might be turned away,” said Donna Lieberman, executive director of the NYCLU. “The McCarthys were no different than any other New York couple seeking a dream wedding venue to commit to share their life together in front of their friends and family.”
Having found that Liberty Ridge violated the State Human Rights Law, the administrative judge with the division ordered Liberty Ridge to stop discriminating and train its staff on the anti-discrimination laws that all businesses must follow. The McCarthys voluntarily limited the amount of damages they requested because their purpose in filing their complaint was to ensure that other same-sex couples do not experience the same discrimination that they did. And though they did not have a wedding at Liberty Ridge, in August of 2013, the McCarthys fulfilled their dream of marrying at a farm in Central Bridge.
Although the McCarthys were vindicated for standing up for their rights, a national anti-LGBT organization joined Liberty Ridge to continue to fight on behalf of discrimination. Liberty Ridge appealed the State Human Rights Division’s decision to the Appellate Division. The NYCLU will continue to contend that Liberty Ridge is not above the law, and ask the Appellate Division to join courts across the country in upholding American laws against discrimination. Oral argument begins today in Albany.
“We’re proud of the Human Rights Law’s history of protecting New Yorkers from discrimination and promoting an equal society for all,” said NYCLU Senior Staff Attorney Mariko Hirose, lead counsel on the case. “We are all welcome to our religious beliefs, but when someone makes a choice to operate a commercial, public business, they must follow the law. Liberty Ridge is no exception. We’re confident this court will affirm the Human Rights Division’s decision.”