New York Farm Becomes The Latest Anti-Equality Red Herring
October 26, 2012 4:22 pm ET by Carlos Maza
Anti-gay groups are hoping to turn a lawsuit against a privately-owned New York farm that refused to offer its property for a gay marriage ceremony into the latest horror story about same-sex marriage. And as usual, they failed to account for critical details that undermine their anti-equality talking points.
Last week, news broke that Liberty Ridge Farm – a privately-owned farm in New York – had turned down a lesbian couple hoping to get married on the property. Farm owner Robert Gifford explained his opposition to hosting the wedding, saying:
I think it’s our right to choose who we market to, like any business. We are a family business and we just feel we ought to stay down the family path.
The couple has since filed a discrimination complaint against the farm, raising the ire of several anti-gay groups.
The National Organization for Marriage (NOM) published a blog post in reaction to the lawsuit, implying that New York’s same-sex marriage law was forcing the farm owners to change their “private policy” on marriage:
Remember how we were promised no one who did not want to be involved with same-sex weddings would be forced to? The lesbian couple is demanding an apology and for the farm owners to change their private policy regarding same-sex ceremonies.
Minnesota for Marriage, the group seeking to ban same-sex marriage through a state constitutional amendment, echoed NOM’s claim in a press release earlier this week. According to Minnesota for Marriage Chairman John Helmberger:
This new case provides yet another in a long list of examples of the consequences individuals, small businesses, religious organizations, parents and children face when marriage is redefined. There is no room under the law for those who cannot agree with this new genderless definition of marriage for religious, cultural, or other reasons.
As is the norm for these kinds of anti-gay horror stories, both groups omitted some important details about the Liberty Ridge incident:
1. Not A “Private Policy.” Liberty Ridge Farm publicly offers its facilities for use during wedding ceremonies (the farm is hosting 15 weddings in 2012). Though the farm itself is private property, the owners’ decision to rent out the facility to the public makes it a place of public accommodation, subject to state anti-discrimination laws. According to an attorney who isn’t involved in the case: “It seems like the women would have a strong argument that this is a place of public accommodation.”
2. Nondiscrimination, Not Marriage. As with other anti-equality red herrings pushed by the anti-gay community, the complaint filed against Liberty Ridge actually isn’t based on New York’s marriage equality law. It’s based on the state’s nondiscrimination law, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation when it comes to places of public accommodation. According to Lambda Legal senior counsel Susan Sommer:
Lambda Legal senior counsel Susan Sommer said it’s well established that a business that serves the public is in violation of New York’s human rights law if it discriminates on the basis of sexual orientation.
“If it opens its venue for weddings by the general public, it can’t then shut its doors on a same-sex couple,” Sommer said.
In Minnesota for Marriage’s press release, Helmberger disregarded this simple fact and instead fixated on the state’s marriage equality law, arguing:
If marriage had not been redefined in these states, these business owners would not be facing legal jeopardy for refusing to participate in a gay ‘marriage’ ceremony since there would be no such thing as gay ‘marriage.’
But Liberty Ridge Farm isn’t being asked to officiate a same-sex wedding. It’s merely being asked to allow its property to be used for a wedding ceremony. Even if same-sex marriage was still illegal in New York, it wouldn’t prohibit a same-sex couple from attempting to rent out the farm for their own celebration. A place of public accommodation in New York cannot refuse services to a gay couple looking to perform a wedding ceremony, regardless of whether that wedding is legally recognized by the state.
3. Not A Religious Institution. Though the farm’s owners claim to oppose same-sex marriage on moral grounds, the farm is not considered a religious organization under state law and is thus not exempt from abiding by New York’s nondiscrimination law. As WNYT reported:
Religious sites and a venue with membership, like the Knights of Columbus, are exempt from the New York State Discrimination Law in regards to same-sex marriage. There is no mention of religious affiliation or membership in any of Liberty Ridge's literature.