Friday, January 15, 2016

NY Appeals Court Upholds Penalty On Wedding Venue That Refused To Host Same-Sex Ceremony

In Matter of Gifford v. McCarthy, (NY App. Div., Jan. 14, 2016), a New York state intermediate appellate court upheld a decision by the State Division of Human Rights imposing compensatory damages of $3000 and a civil fine of $10,000 on a for-profit wedding venue for refusing to host a same-sex marriage ceremony.  Liberty Ridge Farm rents space for, among other things, religious and secular wedding ceremonies and receptions.  One of the farm's owners told Melissa McCarthy that the farm did not host same-sex marriage ceremonies, though apparently it would have been willing to host the reception.  The court held that Liberty Ridge's wedding facilities are a "place of public accommodation" under the NY Human Rights Law and that discrimination against same-sex weddings is discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.

The court went on to reject respondents federal and state free exercise claims, as well as their First Amendment compelled speech and expressive association defenses. It found the Human Rights Law to be a neutral law of general applicability.  The New York state constitution's free exercise clause requires a balancing of interests.  The court said:
While we recognize that the burden placed on the Giffords' right to freely exercise their religion is not inconsequential, it cannot be overlooked that SDHR's determination does not require them to participate in the marriage of a same-sex couple. Indeed, the Giffords are free to adhere to and profess their religious beliefs that same-sex couples should not marry, but they must permit same-sex couples to marry on the premises if they choose to allow opposite-sex couples to do so. To be weighed against the Giffords' interests in adhering to the tenets of their faith is New York's long-recognized, substantial interest in eradicating discrimination....  Balancing these competing interests, we conclude that petitioners failed to show that SDHR's determination constituted an unreasonable interference with the Giffords' religious freedom.
Rejecting respondents' First Amendment compelled speech argument, the court said:
Here, SDHR's determination does not compel the Giffords to endorse, espouse or promote same-sex marriages, nor does it require them to recite or display any message at all. The Giffords remain free to express whatever views they may have on the issue of same-sex marriage. The determination simply requires them to abide by the law and offer the same goods and services to same-sex couples that they offer to other couples. Despite the Giffords' assertion that their direct participation in same-sex wedding ceremonies would "broadcast to all who pass by the Farm" their support for same-sex marriage, reasonable observers would not perceive the Giffords' provision of a venue and services for a same-sex wedding ceremony as an endorsement of same-sex marriage.
The Blaze reports on the decision.