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NY farmers to court: honor our religious freedom

ADF-allied attorney appeals ruling that fined couple $13,000 for declining to host same-sex wedding ceremony in their backyard

Thursday, Oct 2, 2014
TROY, N.Y. – An Alliance Defending Freedom allied attorney filed a petition in New York state court Thursday that asks for review of a New York State Division of Human Rights decision against the owners of an upstate farm. The commission ruled that Cynthia and Robert Gifford were guilty of “sexual orientation discrimination” for declining to host a same-sex wedding ceremony on their property. As punishment, the commissioner fined them $10,000 plus $3,000 in damages and ordered the Giffords to implement staff re-education training classes that teach the state’s viewpoint on marriage.

The appeal filed in Gifford v. New York State Division of Human Rights argues, in part, that the commissioner did not consider Robert and Cynthia’s constitutional freedoms and religious beliefs. During the proceedings, the judge never addressed the Giffords’ First Amendment rights.

“All Americans should be free to live and work according to their beliefs. Entering the marketplace doesn’t mean the government can force a person to surrender their First Amendment freedoms or face punishment,” said James Trainor, one of nearly 2,500 private attorneys allied with ADF. “The commission demonstrated stunning disregard for the Giffords’ First Amendment rights, which were never considered at the hearing. The commissioner’s order in essence gives an ultimatum: host same-sex marriage ceremonies or none at all.”

As the petition filed in state court states, “While the Giffords have asserted their constitutional religious protections as a defense to the discrimination allegations from the beginning, neither the Division, the Administrative Law Judge (the ‘ALJ’) or the Commissioner herself even mentioned those fundamental rights before compelling the family to either host and ‘celebrate’ same-sex wedding ceremonies in their own home, or go out of the wedding ceremony business altogether.”

The Giffords’ farm has been in their family for many years. To supplement their income from the crops they grow, the Giffords open up their property each autumn and invite everyone to participate in fall festivities. The Giffords live in a barn they built on the farm and occasionally allow the bottom portion of their barn and the surrounding backyard area to be used for weddings.

On Sept. 25, 2012, Melisa McCarthy called Cynthia Gifford, inquiring about the use of the farm for her upcoming wedding. Shortly into the conversation, Cynthia realized Melisa’s inquiry pertained to a same-sex wedding. Because of her Christian faith’s teachings on marriage, Cynthia politely told McCarthy that she and her husband don’t host same-sex wedding ceremonies but left open the invitation to visit the farm to consider it as a potential reception site. Unbeknownst to Cynthia, McCarthy and her partner had been secretly recording the conversation. Although the recording confirmed exactly how the Giffords described the conversation, McCarthy and her partner nonetheless filed a complaint with the New York State Division of Human Rights.

“The government should not force anyone to choose between their faith and their livelihood, but that’s exactly what has happened here,” said Trainor. “The Constitution prohibits the state from forcing people to promote a message that violates their religious beliefs and conscience. Particularly disturbing is that, in this instance, it’s happening in someone’s own home.”

Alliance Defending Freedom is an alliance-building, non-profit legal organization that advocates for the right of people to freely live out their faith.
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