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Couple fined for refusing to host same-sex wedding on their farm
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By Andrea Peyser
November 10, 2014

Couple fined for refusing to host same-sex wedding on their farm

Cynthia and Robert Gifford are caught in a same-sex nightmare. They've been forced to defend themselves against claims that they're lesbian-hating homophobes.

"We respect and care for everyone!" Cynthia Gifford told me. "We had an openly gay man working for us this past season," she said.

"We've had a woman who's transitioning to be a man. We don't discriminate against anyone."

But the government of the state of New York sees things differently. The Giffords, who own the bucolic Liberty Ridge Farm in upstate New York, were ordered to pay a total of $13,000 — a $10,000 fine to the state and another $1,500 to each member of a lesbian couple to compensate them for "mental anguish." All because the Giffords, devout Christians, refused to hold a same-sex wedding ceremony on the property in which they live, work and have raised a daughter, 17, and a son, 21.

"This is scary," Cynthia Gifford said. "It's scary for all Americans.” Fifteen years ago, Cynthia, 54, and Robert Gifford, 55, opened to the public their farm in upstate Schaghticoke, near Albany, where they've lived for 25 years. They host an annual, family-friendly fall festival, which ends Tuesday, offering such countrified fare as a corn maze and pig-racing shows.

In summer, wedding ceremonies and receptions also are held on the farm. But once already-booked nuptials take place, the Giffords will no longer schedule new ceremonies. Only receptions — including same-sex ones — will go on. What happened?

Cynthia Gifford took a life-changing two- to three-minute phone call in 2012 from a woman she'd never met, Melisa Erwin, who was looking for a place to hold her wedding. A wedding — to another woman.

Gifford said she told her, politely, that she would not book a same-sex wedding ceremony at the farm.

She didn't know it at the time, but the woman's then-fianceé, Jennifer McCarthy, recorded the conversation. The pair then filed a formal complaint with the state Division of Human Rights. And this past August, an administrative-law judge from The Bronx, Migdalia Pares, decreed that the farm was a "public accommodation" and ordered the penalties, after ruling that the Giffords had violated state law by discriminating against the two women.

Incredible. The women, now both 31, currently live in upstate New York. They found another venue at which to get married, and each woman now uses the surname McCarthy. They declined my request for an interview.

"They were devastated when they heard that Liberty Ridge Farm would not take their business because of who they are," the ladies' lawyer, Mariko Hirose, of the New York Civil Liberties Union, told me.

"NYCLU supports religious freedom," she said. "That still doesn't make it OK for businesses to break existing law prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, race, sex, disability, religion or other protected categories."

"We've gone from tolerance to compulsion," the Giffords' lawyer, James Trainor, told me. "State government should not be forcing people to violate their own religious beliefs, nor should they be forced to make a choice between making a living and violating their own faith." Financial losses have forced the Giffords to let go a full-time event planner.

"I think there is an effort underway to change the social order," said Trainor. "One way is by redefining marriage."

Trainor is allied with Alliance Defending Freedom, an organization that seeks justice for people of faith. Last month, he filed an appeal with the state Appellate Division on behalf of the Giffords, seeking to get their money returned — and setting the stage for New York state's first legal battle pitting one couple's constitutional right to religious freedom against another couple's right to get married wherever they please.

Readers know that I've come to support same-sex marriage. But I can't understand why clergymen and women are free in New York to opt out of joining in marriage homosexual couples, but the law gives not a lick of respect to non-ordained people of faith.

In 2011, days before New York state's Marriage Equality Act legalized same-sex marriage statewide, I wrote about two New York state Refuseniks — town clerks who refused to unite Jills and Janes and Adams and Steves. One woman quit her job, another quit performing all weddings, due to their religiously held beliefs that marriage is the union of one man and one woman.

Since then:

  • ?In Oregon, Christian bakers who refused to sell a wedding cake to two lesbians face hundreds of thousands of dollars in fines.
  • In Washington state, an elderly Christian florist could face hefty fines after she refused to provide wedding flowers to two gay men.
  • A Christian Colorado baker is appealing a judge's decision ordering him to start baking wedding cakes for homosexuals and to provide his staff with sensitivity training, after he refused to create a wedding cake for two gay guys.
  • The US Supreme Court this year declined to hear the case of a Christian photographer from New Mexico who claimed that refusing to shoot the commitment ceremony of two lesbians was an expression not only of her constitutional right to religious freedom, it was protected by her First Amendment right to free speech. New Mexico's Supreme Court and the state's Human Rights Commission have decreed that her refusal to shoot equaled unlawful discrimination.

Robert and Cynthia Gifford are decent people being punished for acting on their faith. This kind of government bigotry should appeal to no one, whether he or she (or one of no gender) identifies as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex, androgynous . . .or even straight.

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