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New York lesbian couple accuses wedding venue of discrimination

By Jonathan Allen

NEW YORK (Reuters) - A New York lesbian couple said they were barred from booking an upstate farm for their wedding because they are gay and filed a discrimination complaint against the venue.

Melisa Erwin and Jennie McCarthy of Albany, New York, said in their complaint with the state Division of Human Rights that Liberty Ridge Farm in Schaghticoke refused to allow them to book the venue next summer after learning they were lesbians.

"That's when she said, 'Now we have a problem,'" Erwin told WNYT, a local news channel. The couple could not be reached on Monday for comment.

Same-sex marriages were legalized in New York in July 2011.

Robert Gifford, owner of the farm, did not respond to interview requests on Monday, but a spokesman said he and his wife object to same-sex marriage on religious grounds.

"What's happening here is that the Giffords are being discriminated against for their religious beliefs," said the spokesman, Jason McGuire, who is executive director of Christian lobbying group New Yorkers for Constitutional Freedoms, which opposes same-sex marriage.

"If religious freedom doesn't extend beyond the four walls of a church, then you really don't have religious freedom at all," he said.

Under state law, it is generally illegal for a business to discriminate on grounds of sex, race or sexuality. Certain religious institutions, however, are allowed to refuse to accommodate the weddings of same-sex couples.

"A public business doesn't get to do that," said Susan Sommer, senior counsel for the civil rights organization Lambda Legal. "You can't open a business, a public accommodation, advertise it as a wedding venue and then in violation of state non-discrimination laws turn some people away at the door."

A spokeswoman for the Division of Human Rights said it does not discuss cases until they are resolved.

If the couple wins, the human rights commissioner could order the Giffords to change their policy or to pay a monetary award to Erwin and McCarthy.

In August, an inn in Vermont paid $10,000 to the state's Human Rights Commission and $20,000 into a charitable trust to settle a lawsuit brought by a lesbian couple after the innkeepers refused to host their wedding reception because they oppose same-sex marriages. The inn also stopped hosting weddings of any kind. (Editing by Ellen Wulfhorst)

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