Two upstate New York women turned away from a potential wedding site because they are gay have filed a discrimination complaint, setting up a possible precedent-setting battle involving the state’s new same-sex marriage law.
The complaint filed with the New York Division of Human Rights appears to be a first involving a wedding venue since same-sex marriage became legal in New York in July 2011, according to advocates on both sides of the issue. One prominent gay marriage opponent said the case could test the breadth of the law’s religious freedom language.
Melisa Erwin and Jennie McCarthy, of Albany, filed the complaint Oct. 11 after the nearby Liberty Ridge Farm said it would not host their wedding next summer. McCarthy said when the owners, Robert and Cynthia Gifford, found out they were a same-sex couple, the women were told there was a problem.
The couple is no longer considering the farm as a wedding venue, but McCarthy said, “We just want to know that the policy is being changed to fit the laws so this doesn’t happen to anyone else.”
The Giffords have objections to gay marriage based on their values and religious background, their spokesman said this week.
“They still have children at home and they feel that their rights are being violated and they’re being discriminated against because of their position on the issue of gay marriage,” said Jason McGuire, executive director of New Yorkers for Constitutional Freedoms, a group opposed to gay marriage.
New York law exempts some religious-oriented institutions from having to accommodate same-sex weddings.
But Lambda Legal senior counsel Susan Sommer said it’s well established that a business that serves the public is in violation of New York’s human rights law if it discriminates on the basis of sexual orientation.
“If it opens its venue for weddings by the general public, it can’t then shut its doors on a same-sex couple,” Sommer said.
McGuire said lawyers will argue that the religious exemption protects the Giffords, though there also is a broader constitutional issue of religious freedom.
If state officials determine there is a case of discrimination, they can order Liberty Ridge to take appropriate action and can set monetary damages. The division’s administrative determination can be appealed to state courts.
There is at least one similar court case in New York. In September, a gay couple in Manhattan filed a lawsuit against a restaurant they allege cancelled their wedding rehearsal dinner and refused to cater their wedding after a manager said he did not want any “gay parties.” The restaurant disputes the claim.
In August, a Vermont inn agreed to pay a $10,000 civil penalty to that state’s Human Rights Commission and to place $20,000 in a charitable trust to settle a lawsuit that accused the business of refusing to host a wedding reception for two women.