Last week, a New York State appeals court unanimously held that the owners of an upstate New York wedding venue violated the state’s Human Rights Law by refusing to host a wedding because they objected to the sexual orientation of the couple getting married. The court upheld a decision of the New York State Division of Human Rights (SDHR), which found that the owners of the wedding venue unlawfully discriminated against Melisa and Jennifer McCarthy, even though the owners’ denial of services was based on a sincerely-held religious belief. The NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc. (LDF) filed a “friend of the court” brief in the case supporting Melisa and Jennifer McCarthy.
“Last week, the New York State appeals court affirmed a hard-fought principle of civil rights law—that no one should be denied equal access to places of public accommodation or services based solely on who they are,” said Christina Swarns, LDF’s Director of Litigation. “Given our country’s history of using religion to justify racial discrimination, we are particularly happy that the New York State appeals court has joined other courts around the country in making clear that religious beliefs cannot justify sexual orientation discrimination. We must not turn back the clock on civil rights protections for any American in places of public accommodation.”
In 2012, Melisa McCarthy inquired about the use of a publicly advertised property called Liberty Ridge Farm—located near Saratoga Springs, New York—for her wedding ceremony to her fiancée Jennifer. The farm’s owner, Cynthia Gifford, told McCarthy that she would not accommodate same-sex marriages, citing her religious beliefs as justification for their exclusion. The McCarthys filed a complaint with the SDHR under New York’s Human Rights Law, which prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation (and other protected classifications) in places of public accommodation. After the SDHR found that Liberty Ridge Farm violated New York State’s Human Rights Law, Gifford and her husband appealed, arguing—among other things—that this state law infringed on their First Amendment right to the free exercise of their religion. Last week, the New York State appeals court rejected that appeal, concluding that, “…[l]ike 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.”
LDF’s “friend of the court” brief explained that the right to the free exercise of religious belief is not absolute, and can be regulated to prevent harm to society, such as discrimination. LDF noted that the Giffords’ religious justification for their discriminatory policy echoed the religious reasons offered to justify slavery, defend Jim Crow segregation, uphold anti-miscegenation laws, and support the laws and practices that denied African Americans the full and equal enjoyment of places of public accommodation. In its opinion, the New York appeals court also echoed the LDF’s argument that an important goal of laws preventing discrimination in public accommodation is the preservation of individual dignity. Specifically, citing the United States Supreme Court’s 1984 decision in Roberts v. United States Jaycees, the court explained that “…[d]iscriminatory denial of equal access to goods, services and other advantages made available to the public not only ‘deprives persons of their individual dignity,’ but also ‘denies society the benefits of wide participation in political, economic, and cultural life.’”
Founded in 1940, the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc. (LDF) is the nation’s first civil and human rights law organization and has been completely separate from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) since 1957—although LDF was originally founded by the NAACP and shares its commitment to equal rights. In media attributions, please refer to us as the NAACP Legal Defense Fund or LDF.