Friday, January 15, 2016
New York State Appellate Court Rejects First Amendment Claim in Same-Sex Wedding Discrimination Case
In its opinion in Gifford v. McCarthy, an appellate court in New York upheld the decision of the State Division of Human Rights that the owners of Liberty Ridge Farm, a wedding venue, were guilty of an unlawful discriminatory practice based upon sexual orientation when they refused to provide services for a same-sex wedding. Writing for the unanimous five judge panel, Presiding Justice Karen Peters concluded that the venue was clearly a place of public accommodation within the anti-discrimination law and that discrimination based upon sexual orientation clearly occurred.
On the constitutional issues, Justice Peters found the arguments under both the First Amendment and New York's similar provisions without merit. Regarding the First Amendment Free Exercise of religion claim, Justice Peters concluded that "the right of free exercise does not relieve an individual of the obligation to comply with a 'valid and neutral law of general applicability on the ground that the law proscribes (or prescribes) conduct that his [or her] religion prescribes (or proscribes)," citing Employment Div., Dept. of Human Resources of Ore. v Smith (1990). She noted that the "fact that some religious organizations and educational facilities are exempt from the [state] statute's public accommodation provision does not, as petitioners claim, demonstrate that it is not neutral or generally applicable."
Applying New York's Free Exercise provision under which the infringement is balanced against the state interests, and Justice Peters wrote:
While we recognize that the burden placed on the Giffords' right to freely exercise their religion is not inconsequential, it cannot be overlooked that SDHR's determination does not require them to participate in the marriage of a same-sex couple. Indeed, the Giffords are free to adhere to and profess their religious beliefs that same-sex couples should not marry, but they must permit same-sex couples to marry on the premises if they choose to allow opposite-sex couples to do so. To be weighed against the Giffords' interests in adhering to the tenets of their faith is New York's long-recognized, substantial interest in eradicating discrimination."
Thus the court rejected the free exercise claims. Similarly, the court rejected the free speech claims of compelled speech and free association. On compelled speech, Justice Peters' opinion for the court concluded that the provision of a wedding venue was not expressive:
Despite the Giffords' assertion that their direct participation in same-sex wedding ceremonies would "broadcast to all who pass by the Farm" their support for same-sex marriage, reasonable observers would not perceive the Giffords' provision of a venue and services for a same-sex wedding ceremony as an endorsement of same-sex marriage. Like all other owners of public accommodations who provide services to the general public, the Giffords must comply with the statutory mandate prohibiting discrimination against customers on the basis of sexual orientation or any other protected characteristic. Under such circumstances, there is no real likelihood that the Giffords would be perceived as endorsing the values or lifestyle of the individuals renting their facilities as opposed to merely complying with anti-discrimination laws.
The court also held that Liberty Farms was not an "expressive association" but a business with the "purpose of making a profit through service contracts with customers." However, the court added that even if Liberty Ridge were to be deemed an expressive enterprise, "a customer's association with a business for the limited purposes of obtaining goods and services – as opposed to becoming part of the business itself – does not trigger" expressive association.
In upholding the application of the anti-discrimination law against First Amendment challenges, the New York appellate opinion joins other courts that have reached the same conclusion: the New Mexico courts in Elane Photography to which the United States Supreme Court denied certiorar and the Colorado courts in Masterpiece Cakeshop. The UK Supreme Court's decision in Bull v. Hall is also consistent with this trend. Nevertheless, the issue is far from settled and more decisions likely.
UPDATE: The owners of Liberty Ridge will reportedly not appeal.