Win for LGBT Equality: Court Says No To Religious Exemption

by James Esseks

On January 14, 2016 a New York appeals court ruled that an upstate farm that rents out its premises for weddings illegally discriminated against a same-sex couple when it refused to host their wedding ceremony.

The court rejected the farm’s claim that the owners’ religious beliefs exempted them from New York’s long-standing equality law.

Melisa and Jennifer McCarthy were thrilled to find what they thought would be the perfect wedding venue when they discovered Liberty Ridge Farm, a “one-of-a-kind” location that promotes itself as a “picturesque setting for weddings all year round.”

But when the farm’s owner, Cynthia Gifford, heard that they were a same-sex couple, she said that the farm does “not hold same-sex marriages.”

When pushed for a reason, she would say only that “it’s a decision that my husband and I have made that that’s not what we wanted to have on the farm.”

The appeals court recognized this refusal as blatant, explicit discrimination that violates New York State’s law that businesses open to the public must be open to everyone, including LGBT people.

The court made clear that the owners can continue to hold and express their religious beliefs about marriage, but those beliefs do not justify discrimination in how they run their business.

The New York Civil Liberties Union and the ACLU represent the McCarthys in this case, which is part of a larger advocacy agenda around LGBT non-discrimination and religious exemptions.

First, in cases from Washington to Colorado to Illinois, we are fighting to ensure that courts don’t insert religious exemption provisions into LGBT non-discrimination laws that don’t contain them.

That’s why these cases about inns and bakeries and florists are so important – a win for the business owners would seriously dilute the non-discrimination protections that we worked so long and hard for.

We’re also fighting to ensure that government workers, like Kentucky clerk Kim Davis, can’t pick and choose who gets access to government services (including marriage licenses) based on the government workers’ religious beliefs.

Second, we are working in state legislatures all across the country to stop bills that would create or expand religious exemptions that undermine equality protections.

In 2015 we managed to defeat the vast majority of those bills, and we’re prepared to fight them again.

Here’s a list of the many bills that have been proposed so far in 2016.

Third, we are shaping the public discussion about these religious exemption proposals to help America understand that these exemptions, like those sought by the business in this case, would authorize discrimination.

Stories like that of Melisa and Jennifer help us do just that. 

Originally published by the ACLU Photo via Kelly Pfeister