Global Freedom of Expression

Gifford v. McCarthy

On Appeal Expands Expression

Key Details

  • Mode of Expression
    Non-verbal Expression
  • Date of Decision
    January 14, 2016
  • Outcome
    Affirmed Lower Court, Monetary Damages / Fines
  • Case Number
    23 N.Y.S.3d 422 (2016)
  • Region & Country
    United States, North America
  • Judicial Body
    Appellate Court
  • Type of Law
    Administrative Law, Constitutional Law
  • Themes
    Freedom of Association and Assembly / Protests, Religious Freedom
  • Tags
    Sexuality, LGBTI

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Case Analysis

Case Summary and Outcome

On an appeal to the Appellant Division of New York’s Supreme Court, the court affirmed a previous judgment from the New York Division of Human Rights (SDHR). The SDHR determined that the petitioners’ farmland, as a public accommodation, discriminated against a couple because of their sexual orientation. The Court rejected the petitioners’ argument that the SDHR’s determination violated their right to freedom of speech. The Court concluded that the prohibition against compelled speech and the right to expressive association were not violated.


The respondent in this case is Liberty Ridge Farm L.L.C.  The company operates a farmland and part of its business is to host wedding ceremonies, corporate events, and holiday parties.

In September 2013, a lesbian couple contacted the company to hold their wedding ceremony there.  Upon revealing their sexual orientation, the company declined to host their ceremony.  The owners stated that hosting same-sex marriage ceremony was against the company’s policy, as well as their religious views regarding marriage.

In October 2012, the couple filed a complaint with the New York State Division of Human Rights against the company.  Its Owners were subsequently joined as respondents in the case.  The couple alleged that the company by rejecting their request to hold their wedding ceremony violated New York’s human right law against unlawful discriminatory practices based on gender identity or sexual orientation.

The New York State Division of Human Rights held that under the Human Rights Law of the state, it is an unlawful discriminatory practice by a place of public accommodation to deny a benefit to a member of the protected class of sexual orientation. Administrative Judge Migdalia Pares ordered the respondent to pay $1,500 to each complainant for mental anguish, as well as a civil fine of $10,000 to the State of New York.

Decision Overview

Justice Peters rendered the judgment of the Supreme Court, Appellate Division.

The main issue before the court was if the SDHR’s determination violated the petitioner’s right to free speech as guaranteed by the First Amendment and the New York state Constitution. The court affirmed the SDHR’s determination and deemed that there was no violation to their free speech rights pursuant to the First Amendment. The court validated SDHR’s assessment towards the definition and the scope of a ‘place of public accommodation, resort or amusement’. Justice Peters noted that Liberty Ridge Farms falls into the scope of the definition of a place of public accommodation as it provides a venue for wedding ceremonies, receptions and other related services. The court considered that even though Liberty Ridge Farm is a private property it does not mean that it can operate outside of the Human Rights Law margin. According to Justice Peters, “the critical factor is that the facilities are made available to the public at large.” [p.5 ]

Justice Peters then addressed the petitioners’ claim that “substantial evidence does not support the conclusion that they engaged in unlawful discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation” (p. 2). The petitioners asserted that their refusal to host a same-sex wedding was not because of the McCarthy’s sexual orientation, but because of the petitioners’ religious views. The court declared that “[s]uch attempts to distinguish between a protected status and conduct closely correlated with that status have been soundly rejected.” The court also affirmed the SDHR’s conclusion that the petitioners did discriminate against the respondents (McCarthy) for their sexual orientation.

Peters first indicated that the First Amendment guarantees the right to be free from government-compelled speech. Moreover, the judge asserted that “the threshold inquiry is whether the conduct allegedly compelled was sufficiently expressive so as to trigger the protections of the First Amendment.” The court submitted that “conduct is considered inherently expressive when there is ‘[a]n intent to convey a particularized message’ and there is a likelihood that the intended ‘message [will] be understood by those who view[ ] it’.”

The court considered that the SDHR did not compel the petitioners to endorse or promote same-sex marriages and they remain free to express their views regarding this issue. The SDHR’s determination only required the petitioners “to abide by the law and offer the same goods and services to same-sex couples that they offer to other couples.” The court also determined that the petitioners had to comply with the statutory mandate, which prohibits “discrimination against customers on the basis of sexual orientation or any other sexual characteristic.” Furthermore, the court added that there is a difference between promoting the values and lifestyle of its customers and complying with anti-discrimination laws. For these reasons, the court concluded that the alleged compelled speech did not trigger the protections guaranteed by the First Amendment.

Regarding the expressive association, the court considered that in order to invoke the First Amendment concerning expressive association “a group must engage in some form of expression, whether it be public or private.” (p. 14). The court noted that the petitioner’s wedding business had not been organized for expressive activity and its only purpose was for profit. The court also asserted that even if the Liberty Ridge farm was to be considered an expressive business, a customer’s association with a business for the limited purposes of obtaining goods and services—as opposed to becoming part of the business itself—does not trigger this constitutional concern.”

Additionally, the court also affirmed that the SDHR’s determination did not unreasonably interfered with the petitioner’s right to freedom of religion. The SDHR’s determination did not obligate or compelled the petitioners to participate in the ceremony of a same-sex marriage and they are free to continue following their religious beliefs regarding same-sex marriages. However, the court noted that against them was the interest of the state of New York to eradicate discrimination.

For these reasons, the court affirmed the SDHR’s determination. The court also maintained the SDHR’s fine and damages assessment.

Decision Direction

Quick Info

Decision Direction indicates whether the decision expands or contracts expression based on an analysis of the case.

Expands Expression

The decision of the administrative court emphasizes the recognition and protection of individuals who expressly identify themselves as gays, lesbians or bisexuals in a place of public accommodation. Affirming the administrative court’s decision, the Appellate Division of the Supreme Court expanded expression as it declared that there is a difference between promoting the values and lifestyle of its customers and complying with anti-discrimination laws.


Global Perspective

Quick Info

Global Perspective demonstrates how the court’s decision was influenced by standards from one or many regions.

Table of Authorities

National standards, law or jurisprudence

  • U.S., Matter of Cahill v. Rosa, 89 N.Y.2d 14 (1996)

    The New York Court of Appeals held that a business that provides services to the public even on private premises is a place of public accommodation because such places are generally open to all comers.

  • U.S., New York State Executive Law, art. 15, § 296.2(a)

    “It shall be an unlawful discriminatory practice for any person, being the owner, lessee, proprietor, manager, superintendent, agent or employee of any place of public accommodation, resort or amusement, because of the race, creed, color, national origin, sexual orientation, military status, sex, or disability or marital status of any person, directly or indirectly, to refuse, withhold from or deny to such person any of the accommodations, advantages, facilities…”

  • U.S., Wooley v. Maynard, 430 U.S. 705 (1977)

    [Referenced by the Supreme Court, Appellate Division]

  • U.S., Rumsfeld v. Forum for Acad. & Inst. Rights, Inc., 547 U.S. 47 (2006)

    [Referenced by the Supreme Court, Appellate Division]

  • U.S., Bd. of Educ. v. Barnette, 319 U.S. 624 (1943)

    [Referenced by the Supreme Court, Appellate Division]

  • U.S., Clark v. Cmty. for Creative Non-Violence, 468 U.S. 288 (1984)

    [Referenced by the Supreme Court, Appellate Division]

  • U.S., Texas v. Johnson, 491 U.S. 397 (1989)

    [Referenced by the Supreme Court, Appellate Division]

  • U.S., Spence v. Washington, 418 U.S. 405 (1974)

    [Referenced by the Supreme Court, Appellate Division]

  • U.S., Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Craig, 2015COA115

    [Referenced by the Supreme Court, Appellate Division]

  • U.S., Elane Photography, LLC v. Willock, 309 P.3d 53 (N.M. 2013)

    [Referenced by the Supreme Court, Appellate Division]

  • U.S., Hurley v. Irish-Am. Gay, Lesbian & Bisexual Grp., 515 U.S. 557 (1995)

    [Referenced by the Supreme Court, Appellate Division]

  • U.S., N.Y. State Club Ass’n, Inc. v. City of New York, 487 U.S. 1 (1988)

    [Referenced by the Supreme Court, Appellate Division]

  • Catholic Charities of Diocese of Albany v. Serio, 808 N.Y.S.2d 447 [2006]

    [Referenced by the Supreme Court, Appellate Division]

  • Boy Scouts of America v. Dale, 530 U.S. 640 (2000)

    [Referenced by the Supreme Court, Appellate Division]

Case Significance

Quick Info

Case significance refers to how influential the case is and how its significance changes over time.

The decision establishes a binding or persuasive precedent within its jurisdiction.

The Appellant Division of the Supreme Court of New York is the intermediate appellate court of the state. Its decision are binding on lower courts and can be appealed to New York’s Court of Appeals.

Official Case Documents

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