by Rick Karlin
November 7, 2013
In what could become one of the highest-profile cases regarding New York's same-sex marriage law, a lesbian couple and the operators of a Rensselaer County agritourist farm squared off before a Division of Human Rights judge on Wednesday over the farm owners' refusal to host their marriage.
And in an indication of the emotions surrounding the issue, a plaintiff and defendants both erupted in tears at different points as they recounted the episode and its aftermath.
"People are in the business of celebrating weddings but yours isn't good enough to celebrate," a tearful Jennie McCarthy said, telling how she felt after the operator of Liberty Ridge Farm told her she wouldn't host a same-sex marriage ceremony last year. McCarthy said the news left her "shellshocked."
It also prompted McCarthy and her spouse, Melissa McCarthy, to file a complaint with the state Human Rights Division.
An administrative law judge from the division, Migdalia Pares, heard arguments from both sides on Wednesday.
"I did not think people could be so mean and vindictive," an equally tearful Cynthia Gifford said later in the daylong hearing as she recounted the angry comments made on her farm's Facebook page after word of the refusal got out.
"I can't go against my core values," said Gifford, who said her Catholic faith prevents her from hosting same-sex weddings.
Liberty Ridge includes a barn, a dining hall and a tent for events such as weddings and corporate meetings. Gifford and her husband, Robert Gifford, and their children live on the farm as well.
Much of the hearing focused on whether the Giffords were offering a public accommodation through their wedding venue, which would by law have to be open to same-sex weddings.
The Giffords' lawyer, James Trainor, tried to distinguish between the wedding portion of their business and other areas of the sprawling farm that are more public in nature. Trainor also argued that the Giffords' stance on same-sex weddings was covered by the First Amendment's protection of religious freedom.
Mariko Hirose, a lawyer for the state Civil Liberties Union who is representing the McCarthys, argued that the wedding area was in fact a public accommodation and that refusing to host a same-sex wedding was discriminatory.
"Like any other business they have to comply with discrimination laws," said Hirose. The McCarthys want Liberty Ridge to "cease and desist" from its refusal to host same-sex weddings, Hirose said.
The case had some twists and turns. The McCarthys, who met as students at SUNY Oswego, had recorded the phone conversation in which Gifford said there was a "problem" with allowing same-sex weddings at the farm. Trainor asked why they recorded the call without telling Gifford, and the women said it was because they hadn't gotten an email response to their online inquiry. But they also said they had heard that Liberty Ridge didn't allow same-sex weddings.
"We decided that filing (a complaint with the Human Rights Division) was the responsible thing to do," said Melissa McCarthy.
Gifford at one point said she employs openly gay staff members and has hosted a birthday party for a boy with "two moms."
And Stephen Hayford, a spokesman for the Giffords and a staff member with New Yorker's Family Research Foundation, said the two sides had discussed a settlement in recent weeks but that was rejected by the Human Rights Division. The case was filed approximately a year ago.
Pares will make a recommendation to acting Human Rights Commissioner Helen Diane Foster who will then make the final decision.
Either party has the option of pursuing the matter in civil court if it loses the case before the Human Rights Division.
"We want to see it through," Jennie McCarthy said after the hearing.
The McCarthys married in another venue and they currently live in Newark, N.J.