Robert and Cynthia Gifford, co-owners of Liberty Ridge Farm, in May 2013.
Robert and Cynthia Gifford, co-owners of Liberty Ridge Farm, in May 2013. (Minnesota Family Council)

An Albany area farm which rebuffed efforts by a same-sex couple to hold their wedding at the site has been fined $10,000 and ordered to pay the women $1,500 each for their mental anguish.

In New York State Division of Human Rights v. Liberty Ridge Farm, 10157952/ 10157963, Administrative Law Judge Migdalia Pares of the Bronx rejected the owners’ argument that the farm, which is their home, is not a place of public accommodation and is therefore not subject to the anti-discrimination provisions of the Human Rights Law.

The matter involves the Liberty Ridge Farm, a picturesque venue in northern Rensselaer County where Cynthia and Robert Gifford offer their facilities for celebrations, ranging from Sweet 16 parties to corporate events. They also advertise the site’s availability for weddings and host about a dozen nuptials annually.

Jennifer McCarthy and Melisa Erwin, a same-sex couple from Newark, N.J., got engaged while picking apples at an orchard near Albany in 2011. They sought a “rustic” location for their wedding and found Liberty Ridge Farm online. Erwin contacted the farm, but when she referred to her fiancé as “she,” Cynthia Gifford advised that she and her husband would not allow a same sex wedding ceremony to be performed on their property. Gifford offered the use her facilities for a reception, but not for the wedding ceremony.

The women, who are now married, filed a complaint with the state Division of Human Rights, resulting in a finding by the administrative law judge that Liberty Ridge “unlawfully discriminated against complainants solely on the basis of their sexual orientation.”

Jennifer McCarthy said in a statement: “No one should have the happiest time of their life marred by discrimination, We hope this decision will protect all New Yorkers from having to go through the hurt that we experienced.”

The McCarthys were represented by Mariko Hirose and Arthur Eisenberg of the New York Civil Liberties Union.

“All New Yorkers are entitled to their own religious beliefs, but businesses cannot discriminate based on sexual orientation anymore than they can based on race or national origin,” Hirose, lead counsel on the case, said in a statement. “We applaud the courage of the McCarthys for knowing their rights and standing up against discrimination.”

NYCLU Executive Director Donna Lieberman said the ruling “sets an important precedent protecting the rights of LGBT New Yorkers, and will help ensure that businesses understand New York law and treat all patrons with the dignity and respect they deserve.”

The respondents were represented by James Trainor of Cutler, Trainor & Cutler in Malta, Saratoga County. Trainor said he was disappointed that neither the ALJ nor the commissioners addressed the Giffords’ First Amendment rights, “including the right not to be compelled to participate in a religious ceremony which violates their own religious beliefs.”

“The judge and commissioner each had the opportunity to reconsider the Giffords’ religious rights after the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed that businesses can exercise the religious rights of their owners in Hobby Lobby decision of June 30, yet failed to do so,” Trainor said.

In Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores, 13-354, the U.S. Supreme Court said in a 5-4 decision that closely held for-profit enterprises can be exempt from some laws if the owners have a religious objection to the statute and there is a less intrusive means to furthering the law’s intent. The case dealt with a mandate in the Affordable Care Act requiring employers to cover certain contraceptives if they provide health benefits to their employees.

Legal observers debate how broad or narrow the ruling is, but the decision is so recent that its reach and implications remain uncertain and untested.

Trainor said he and the Giffords are considering their next step, including a possible appeal based on the Hobby Lobby ruling.

“Obviously, Hobby Lobby dealt with a different law and a different set of facts,” Trainor said. “But the holding was fairly clear. Judge [Samuel] Alito said that a closely held business can exercise the religious beliefs of its owners, and that is precisely our case here.”