New York famers drop appeal in same-sex wedding fight
by Bonnie Pritchett
Posted 2/24/16, 03:30 pm
After four years of legal battles against a state government bent on forcing them to host same-sex weddings, Liberty Ridge Farm owners Robert and Cynthia Gifford decided on Tuesday to end their appeal.
“It was their personal decision,” said Caleb Dalton, the Alliance Defending Freedom-allied attorney working with the Giffords.
Dalton told me he would have preferred the couple press on “to see liberty prevail” but understood the legal battle for freedom of conscience came with a price. In addition to paying the $13,000 fine levied against them by New York officials, the Giffords have had to contend with dwindling business. The 100-acre Liberty Ridge Farm in Schaghticoke, N.Y., is a family-operated farm that supplements its agricultural income by hosting special events, including weddings, receptions, field trips, and fall festivals. Dalton said the family has not hosted a wedding or reception since Melisa Erwin and Jennie McCarthy filed a complaint against them.
In 2012, the Giffords declined to host a wedding for the lesbian couple but offered their facility as a reception site. After secretly recording their phone conversation with the Giffords, the women filed a complaint with the New York Division of Human Rights. The state agency declared the Giffords guilty of sexual orientation discrimination. In January, a state appellate court upheld the order dismissing the Giffords appeal, which was based on the First Amendment’s freedom of conscience provisions.
Prior to the 2011 passage of New York’s Marriage Equality Act, the Giffords were already coordinating weddings and receptions. Dalton said the couple understood the new marriage paradigm could affect their business but assumed their small operation would continue to function in relative obscurity.
They were wrong.
“The government went after this couple’s constitutionally protected freedom and their ability to make a living simply for adhering to their faith on their own property,” Dalton said in a statement released Tuesday.
The Giffords’ home and backyard served as the venue for the weddings, making their commitment to the biblical doctrine of marriage all the more personal.
Religious liberty advocates suspect McCarthy and Erwin were “trolling” for private wedding venues that did not comply with the newly enacted state law. McCarthy knew before she called Liberty Ridge that the Giffords wouldn’t host her ceremony, Dalton said. The Marriage Equality Act provides compliance exemptions for clergy and “benevolent organizations” but not for individual business owners in the wedding service industry.
In the Giffords’ defense, ADF attorneys maintained the couple’s constitutional right to “decline to help communicate messages that conflict with their core beliefs about marriage.”
“All Robert and I want is the freedom to peacefully live and work faithfully on our family farm and according to what God says about marriage without fear of government punishment,” Cynthia Gifford said prior to filing their appeal in November.
Bonnie reports on First Amendment freedoms for WORLD Digital.