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NY farm appeals ruling that it violated state law by refusing to host same-sex marriage rites

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ALBANY, New York — A rural New York wedding venue whose owners were fined $13,000 for refusing to host a lesbian wedding has stopped booking ceremonies.

Liberty Ridge Farm's owners, citing constitutional rights to free speech and religious freedom, have appealed the August ruling by the Division of Human Rights that they violated state anti-discrimination law.

Their attorney said Robert and Cynthia Gifford paid the $10,000 state civil penalty and $1,500 each to Melisa and Jennie McCarthy, whose 2013 wedding they declined to host. The Giffords testified last year that in their Christian beliefs, marriage is between a man and a woman, and the ceremonies are held at their home, a private space where their own rights should be determinate.

They still book wedding receptions for anyone and are hosting the wedding ceremonies they had already booked, attorney James Trainor said Monday. Not hosting ceremonies is going to cost them business, but they decided that the ruling left them with two options — to host all or none, he said.

"To stay true to their religious beliefs, they could not accept any more ceremonies," Trainor said. "The judge just ignored all our constitutional and religious arguments."

The appeal filed in a state court should move shortly to the midlevel Appellate Division, where arguments are likely next year, he said.

The agency upheld the ruling of Administrative Law Judge Migdalia Pares. She concluded that the Rensselaer County farm about 25 miles north of Albany is a business open to the public, including the "mixed use" building where indoor wedding ceremonies are held and where the Giffords and their children live upstairs.

Pares wrote that the owners acknowledged having a discriminatory policy based on sexual orientation. "Complainants would not have been refused service if they were an opposite-sex couple," she wrote.

The New York Civil Liberties Union represented the McCarthys in their civil rights complaint.

NYCLU attorney Mariko Hirose said Monday the group will represent them in the appeal also. "We certainly believe religious freedom is a fundamental part of America. That doesn't make it OK for a business to break the law to discriminate against others."

"This isn't about religious freedom but discrimination," Hirose said. "There's a lot of case law enforcing these anti-discrimination laws."

New York legalized same-sex marriage in June 2011. Hirose said New York amended its statute in 2002 to outlaw discrimination based on sexual orientation.

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