In case you don't remember the story of the farm owners fined for their faith, let me quickly refresh your memory on some key points:
Background: Cynthia and Robert Gifford own and live on Liberty Ridge Farm in upstate New York. People of all religions, nationalities, and sexual orientations are welcome at the farm for all public events. The Giffords occasionally host events at the farm, such as receptions and even wedding ceremonies that they actively coordinate and personally participate in. But their Christian faith does not permit them to host or participate in same-sex ceremonies because they believe that weddings are a sacred union between one man and one woman.
What Happened: In 2012, a same-sex couple who was aware of the Giffords’ beliefs about marriage called and asked about having their same-sex ceremony at the farm and secretly recorded the conversation. Although the Giffords are happy to host receptions for same-sex couples, Cynthia Gifford politely explained that because of their religious beliefs they do not host or coordinate same-sex ceremonies on their property. The same-sex couple proceeded to file complaints against the Giffords, and a judge concluded that the Giffords had discriminated on the basis on sexual orientation, fined the Giffords $13,000, ordered them to re-educate their employees, and required that they host same-sex ceremonies in the future if they continue to host wedding ceremonies. The Giffords have appealed the ruling. ADF Allied Attorney James Trainor along with ADF attorneys recently filed an opening brief with the New York Supreme Court Appellate Division.
It's clear that the discrimination claims fall flat considering people of all sexual orientations are welcome at the Giffords' farm. But what really stands out to me in this case is that the government felt it was okay to force Americans to violate their sincerely held beliefs—and on their own property to boot.
The Giffords' decision not to host same-sex weddings at their home has very little to do with people who identify as gay or lesbian. It's not about who people love—it's about what marriage is. To the Giffords, a wedding ceremony is a sacred event—it's the joining of one man and one woman in a lifelong union. The very definition of sacred is something that deserves the utmost respect because of its religious purpose—that's why it is called Holy Matrimony.
Sure, the couple who complained may disagree with that view of marriage, and even the judge may disagree. But when did we get in the habit of ignoring someone's sincerely held beliefs and their constitutionally protected right to exercise those beliefs? More importantly, when did we get in the habit of then forcing them to violate those beliefs?
Christianity is not the only faith that considers marriage to be sacred. The same is true of numerous other world religions. And it's not just marriage. People of faith all across the world hold sacred views on what they wear, what they eat, and events surrounding different life milestones, including birth, adulthood, marriage, and even death.
We don't force doctors or nurses to violate their conscience and participate in abortions. To these individuals abortion is taking a life and violates their belief that life is sacred. So why not honor what’s sacred for people like the Giffords?
Would you be okay if the government told you that you had to do something in your own home that went against your conscience? I sure wouldn't.
We've always agreed as American people to respect religious beliefs unless we have a really, really good reason not to. The government or popular culture does not have the right to dictate an individual's conscience, and we don't stamp out free exercise of religion because we don't agree with a particular faith. Rather, we have not only respected dissenting religious opinion, but our constitution requires that we protect peaceful conduct associated with it.
The Giffords simply desire the freedom to live out their sincerely held beliefs on their own property without being punished by the government. Unfortunately, the Supreme Court's ruling on marriage is somewhat vague about individuals’ rights to live out their beliefs on marriage. The only mention of religious freedom came late in Justice Kennedy's opinion and wasn't exactly clear on the rights of photographers, florists, cake bakers, and now farmers:
"Finally, it must be emphasized that religions, and those who adhere to religious doctrines, may continue to advocate with utmost, sincere conviction that, by divine precepts, same-sex marriage should not be condoned. The First Amendment ensures that religious organizations and persons are given proper protection as they seek to teach the principles that are so fulfilling and so central to their lives and faiths, and to their own deep aspirations to continue the family structure they have long revered."
The belief that marriage is a lifelong union between one man and one woman is central to the Giffords' lives and faith, and they teach that precept through their own marriage and through their direct involvement in the wedding ceremonies on their property. Courts would do well to heed Justice Kennedy’s admonition that redefining marriage doesn’t redefine the First Amendment. To the contrary, the First Amendment prohibits the government from forcing the Giffords to host and personally participate in a ceremony that would violate their conscience and contradict their deepest beliefs about marriage.
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