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Denied dream wedding site, lesbian couple files discrimination complaint

Two New York state women who were denied their dream wedding site because they are gay have filed a discrimination complaint that could set a precedent for whether businesses can choose their clientele.

The complaint with the state Division of Human Rights appears to be a first involving a wedding venue since same-sex marriage became legal in New York in July 2011, according to advocates on both sides of the issue. One prominent gay marriage opponent said the case could test the breadth of the law's religious freedom language.

Melisa Erwin and Jennie McCarthy, both 29 and of Albany, filed the complaint on Oct. 11 after Liberty Ridge Farm said they would not host their wedding next summer. The two women have been together for three years, according to WNYT-TV.

When the owners, Robert and Cynthia Gifford, found out they were gay, they refused to book their wedding. 

Erwin told WNYT-TV's Abigail Bleck that Cynthia Gifford said that when she found out, “Well, now we have a problem.”

“When we asked why,” Erwin said, Cynthia Gifford replied, “My husband and I have been married a really long time and it’s great that you’re getting married, but you can’t do it here.”

Robert Gifford told WNYT-TV: “I think it’s our right to choose who we market to, like any business.”

The farm has refused to allow two gay couples to get married at their venue, WNYT-TV reported.

“We are a family business and we feel we ought to stay down the family path,” Gifford said.

The couple is no longer considering the farm as a wedding venue, but McCarthy said, "we just want to know that the policy is being changed to fit the laws so this doesn't happen to anyone else."

People took to Liberty Ridge Farm’s Facebook page to post messages of disgust or support.

Wrote one commenter beneath images of a family harvest event: “Stay on the family path. These are individuals who have no respect for Christian beliefs or moral beliefs. You done the right thing. They are the ones that are in the wrong.”

New York law exempts some religious-oriented institutions from having to accommodate same-sex weddings.

But Attorney David Fallon told WNYT-TV the law does not allow a “place of public accommodation” to discriminate but that judges haven’t interpreted the law.

“It seems like the women would have a strong argument that it is a place of public accommodation,” Fallon said.

If state officials determine there is a case of discrimination, they can order Liberty Ridge to take appropriate action and can set monetary damages. The division's administrative determination can be appealed to state courts.

There is at least one similar court case in New York. In September, a gay couple in Manhattan filed a lawsuit against a restaurant they allege canceled their rehearsal dinner and refused to cater their wedding after a manager said he did not want any "gay parties." The restaurant disputes the claim.

In August, a Vermont inn agreed to pay a $10,000 civil penalty to that state's Human Rights Commission and to place $20,000 in a charitable trust to settle a lawsuit that accused the business of refusing to host a wedding reception for two women.

Back in New York, Erwin emphasized on WNYT-TV’s Facebook page that she and McCarthy are not suing.

“We are not seeking compensation,” she said. “We are seeking a change in policy.”

NBC's Isolde Raftery contributed to this report.

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