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Barn Wedding Fiasco: Follow the Law or Your Faith, But Not Both

03-22-2016
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ALBANY, N.Y. -- An upstate New York farm couple is working through what it means to run a wedding business, follow their faith, and follow the law. 

Liberty Ridge Farm owners Cynthia and Robert Gifford decided earlier this year not to appeal after a New York court unanimously agreed with the New York Division of Human Rights that they should be fined and receive anti-discrimination training after refusing to host a same-sex wedding ceremony on their property.

Liberty Ridge Farm is a scenic, 100-acre property on the banks of the Hoosic River in Schaghticoke, New York, just outside of Albany. The Giffords host a fall festival and various seasonal events open to the public on the farm.

About 10 years ago they began hosting wedding ceremonies and receptions.

"It was really just couples coming to us because barn weddings are trendy right now - that rustic elegance, country charm -and that's what we can provide," Cynthia Gifford told CBN News.

The Call that Changed Everything

Fast forward to 2011 when the state of New York redefined marriage, legalizing same-sex unions. Gifford and her husband remember talking about it.

"We actually did sit down and have a conversation, that this law was enacted. It goes against our beliefs," she said. "It was not something we wanted to be doing, that it just -- deep down in our hearts, that we are each gifts from God to each other. So, we did not want to do weddings and didn't think that we were obligated to."

A phone call in 2012 changed everything for the Giffords. A lesbian woman inquired about using their property for her wedding. She initially did not reveal that it was a same-sex wedding and she never told them that she was recording the call.

"I politely told her that we do not hold same-sex ceremonies here, that we can hold the reception," Gifford recalled. "And she said, 'Oh, that's too bad' and hung up."

Gifford didn't think much about the call, but Melisa Erwin and Jennifer McCarthy, armed with their phone recording, filed a complaint with the New York State Division of Human Rights. They accused the Giffords of discriminating against them on the basis of sexual orientation.

In 2014, the division agreed, fining the Giffords $13,000 and ordering anti-discrimination training. For Gifford, the most painful part was the required training for their staff.

'All Americans Should Be Scared'

"When the government tells you what to say and punishes you if you don't, it's scary stuff," she said. "All Americans should be fearful of this no matter where they stand on this."

CBN News requested an interview from the division in Albany to explain the training. The division declined but explained in a statement that the anti-discrimination training and procedures "seek to ensure that Liberty Ridge Farm, its employees and its owners, are familiar with their obligations under the law and will treat all customers equally regardless of sexual orientation."

Believing they should fight for religious liberty for all Americans, the Giffords appealed the division's order, asserting they did not discriminate.

"The Giffords employ openly gay employees. They do events for same-sex couples-birthday parties and the like," James Trainor, the Gifford's attorney and an allied attorney with Alliance Defending Freedom, the Phoenix-based Christian legal non-profit, told CBN News.

Disregarding the First Amendment?

Trainor argued in court that the division's order violated the Gifford's free exercise of religion, freedom of expressive association, and freedom against coerced expression under the United States and New York Constitutions. 

"It forces them to convey the message that not only are they okay with same-sex marriage, but that they believe in it enough where they will actively promote it," Trainor said.

In January, a state appellate court unanimously ruled against the Giffords. It did not consider the First Amendment arguments, focusing instead on the New York Human Rights law which forbids discrimination in places of public accommodation.

The court said the law "does not target religious beliefs." It also noted rulings from other states against Christian wedding vendors, building on a growing public perception that biblically motivated businesses have no viability in the wedding market place.

Christian attorney Stephen Hayford works as a legislative director for New Yorkers for Constitutional Freedoms and as communications director of New Yorker's Family Research Foundation. He is concerned that the Giffords' case will harm people of faith.

"If I were a wedding vendor what I would be saying is, 'Oh my goodness. I don't know if I want to be in this business anymore if I can't run my business in accordance with my own beliefs,'" Hayford said.

Gifford has heard that same fear from other Christian vendors.

"They're scared that their faith is going to be compromised -- that their livelihood is going to be compromised," she said. "This three-minute phone call has been financially devastating to our family."

A Way Forward?

The Giffords aren't sure how they will go forward. While they host seasonal events on the farm, the wedding business is significant and it has dropped off since they stopped hosting wedding ceremonies. 

The latest ruling affirmed that they must host same-sex wedding ceremonies if they choose to host traditional ones.

The judges also said, however, that they are free to profess their belief that gay couples should not marry.

If there's a way to do both - publicly affirm their convictions and allow gay weddings at Liberty Ridge Farm - that may be a way for the Giffords to stay in business, at least for now.

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