Freedom of Association and Assembly / Protests, Political Expression
Microtech Contracting Corp. v. Mason Tenders District Council of Greater New York
In Progress Mixed Outcome
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An LGBT+ inquired about getting married at a farm in upstate New York, Liberty Ridge Farm. The farm’s owners, Cynthia and Robert Gifford, refused to let the couple marry at their farm and cited religious reasons for this refusal. An Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) from the New York Division of Human Rights ordered that the farm’s owners pay $1500 to each of the Plaintiffs and $10,000 to the State of New York in restitution for violating New York law.
Liberty Ridge Farm, the defendant, is a farm in New York state that is open to the public during its “Fall Festival” and other times. The Farm is also available for corporate events, dinners, wedding ceremonies, and wedding receptions, and the Farm also offers catering. When looking for “rustic” Albany wedding venues, a same-sex couple, Jennifer and Melisa McCarthy, who later married elsewhere, found Liberty Ridge Farm. The couple tried to contact the Farm electronically and also left phone messages.
After speaking with Melisa McCarthy over the phone about the venue, Cynthia Gifford invited Melisa to visit the farm. When making the appointment for this visit, Melissa referred to her fiancée as “she,” and Gifford stated that there was a problem “because ‘we don’t hold same sex marriages here at the barn.’” When asked by Melisa if this practice was legal, Gifford responded that it was “because ‘we are a private business.’” It took the couple two to three months after the farm’s rejection to begin looking for wedding venues in the Albany area again.
In October, 2012, the couple filed a complaint with the New York State Division of Human Rights. In the complaint, the couple charged Liberty Ridge Farm, LLC, with violating New York Executive Law, Art. 15 (Human Rights Law), an unlawful discriminatory practice related to public accommodation. The Division later amended the complaint to include the Farm’s owners, Cynthia and Robert Gifford. The couple was married in August, 2013, in Central Bridge, New York.
Commissioner Helen Diane Foster of the New York State Division of Human Rights adopted the findings of ALJ Migdalia Parés. New York Executive Law, Article 15 (Human Rights Law) §296.27 includes homosexuality and bisexuality in the list of protected classes of sexual orientation. Melisa and Jennifer McCarthy identify as bisexual and homosexual, respectively. Thus, according to the order, both fell within protected classes because of their perceived or actual sexual orientations. Under Human Rights Law §296.2(a), it is unlawful for a “place of public accommodation” to discriminate against someone “on the basis of sexual orientation.” US, N.Y., Human Rights Law Sec. 296.
The Farm claimed to be exempt from the law because of its private nature. However the ALJ, liberally construing the definition of “public accommodation,” found that the Farm provided both services and goods to the public. Thus, the Farm was deemed to be a “place of public accommodation,” which requires that the Farm abide by the Human Rights Law.
The Farm argued that because its invitation to Melisa’s visit was never rescinded, no such discrimination occurred. The ALJ rejected this argument and found that the owner’s policy of not allowing same-sex weddings at the Farm was “a denial of access to a place of public accommodation.” Accordingly, the ALJ ordered that the Farm’s owners pay $1500 to each of the two Plaintiffs for mental anguish. The ALJ also ordered, in furtherance of deterrence, that the Farm pay a civil fine of $10,000 to the State of New York.
Following a public hearing, the ALJ of the New York State Division of Human Rights issued an order. The order was also adopted and issued by Division Commissioner, Helen Diane Foster, and was the Final Order of the Division. Following the ALJ’s decision, the Alliance Defending Freedom filed a petition on behalf of the Giffords, appealing the ALJ’s decision. The Alliance filed the petition in the State of New York Supreme Court, County of Rensselaer, on October 2, 2014.
Decision Direction indicates whether the decision expands or contracts expression based on an analysis of the case.
The ALJ in this case adhered to the human rights standards set forth in the New York Executive Law. By requiring Liberty Ridge Farm to pay $13,000 in fines and restitution, the ALJ set a precedent regarding the evaluation of discriminatory action and sought to deter other places of accommodation from acting in a discriminatory manner in the name of religious freedom.
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