ALBANY, N.Y. – A lesbian couple urged New York's human rights agency Wednesday to rule that a wedding venue outside Albany broke the law when it refused to book their wedding last year.
Melisa and Jennie McCarthy, formerly of Albany, filed the complaint against Liberty Ridge Farm in October 2012. They're asking for unspecified damages and an order telling the farm not to reject customers based on sexual orientation.
Attorneys from the New York Civil Liberties Union argued Wednesday before the Division of Human Rights that the 100-acre farm is a business open to the public and subject to the state's anti-discrimination laws.
"We are asking for some damages. We are not asking for very much," NYCLU attorney Mariko Hirose said.
More important is an anti-discrimination order to the wedding venue in one of the first such cases since New York legalized same-sex marriage in June 2011, Hirose said afterward. She and the couple, who married in August at another farm in upstate New York, said they expect to pursue the case in an appeal to the courts should they lose at the state agency.
Administrative Law Judge Migdalia Pares, who conducted the hearing, asked for additional documents and is expected to make a recommendation in several weeks. It will be up to Commissioner Helen Diane Foster to accept or amend the recommendation.
A spokesman for farm owners Robert and Cynthia Gifford said the farm is a private business on private property. Their First Amendment freedom of religion trumps state law and allows them to "conscientiously object" to something they don't believe is appropriate, said Stephen Hayford of New Yorkers for Constitutional Freedoms. He declined to say Wednesday whether they would pursue an appeal if the ruling didn't go their way.
The farm owners' attorney, James Trainor, argued that only part of the family farm is open to the public, that the wedding ceremonies and receptions are done occasionally under contract in fenced-off areas at their home and that the civil rights provisions don't apply.
The Giffords, who testified they were each raised as Christians, one Baptist and one Catholic, acknowledged similar religious beliefs about marriage. "It's one man and one woman as in the Bible," Robert Gifford said.
Cynthia Gifford said they welcome everyone and have had employees who are gay, but she acknowledged telling Melisa McCarthy in a phone call last year that there was "a little bit of a problem" with her inquiry about getting married there.
"We don't hold same-sex marriages here at the farm," Gifford said in a recording of the phone call, recorded by Jennie McCarthy and played at the hearing.
The couple, who now live in New Jersey, both testified that they had their hearts set on the farm wedding, that getting rejected by a business because of who they are was hurtful and it took them several months to find another rustic venue.
"Our goal in this was to ensure this doesn't happen to somebody else," Jennie McCarthy said.
Trainor said the farm lost business as a consequence. He asked the judge to note that if she rules against them and considers fines and civil penalties that the Giffords have already suffered financially.
"I did not think people could be so mean and so vindictive," Cynthia Gifford said, including people who didn't know her or the situation posting messages on the farm's Facebook page. "I can't go against my core values."