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03/07/2015

Gay couple: Otisco B&B refused to host wedding; Business: We don't discriminate

Otisco, NY – Andrea Needham, 22, and Sarah Dailey, 24, were hunting for a rustic place to get married.

An Otisco bed and breakfast told them it wouldn't host their ceremony because gay marriage is against the owners' beliefs, the couple said. "I was very upset and felt unwelcome," Needham said.

The Lyncourt couple has now filed a complaint with the state's Division of Human Rights, saying they were discriminated against because of their sexual orientation.

In the rapidly changing issue of gay marriage rights, their allegation illustrates another battleground: What are the rights and obligations of a private business?

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Apple Country Retreat's owners did not respond to interview requests. But they posted a statement on their website that says they will not discriminate based on the basis of sexual orientation in the provision of services.

"We are committed to providing an inclusive and welcoming environment for all members of our staff, clients, volunteers, subcontractors, vendors, and clients," the statement reads.

It's not clear exactly what day the statement was added to the website.

Needham and Dailey say they were looking for an outdoorsy setting for their wedding. They heard about Apple Country Retreat, which boasts a bunkhouse that has been transformed into a "rustically elegant environment." Renovations have created a B&B and banquet facility.

Needham described her feelings in the human rights complaint:

"When we arrived at Apple Country Retreat, the owner asked if we were the couple and when we said yes, the owner looked at us with an expression of disgust," Needham wrote in the complaint.

In an interview, Dailey said the owner told them that it was "nothing personal" but gay marriage was "against my faith."

Needham and Dailey went to Apple Country Retreat on June 24. Two days later, the U.S. Supreme Court declared gay marriage legal across the nation.

But state protection from discrimination based on sexual orientation has existed long before now. In 2003, New York added sexual orientation to a list of protected classes, alongside race, color, gender and religion.

Under law, gay people get special protections not afforded to say, customers without a shirt or shoes.

The law creates certain new rights for gay people, said Peter Charnetsky, a former Southern Tier judge who now runs Tully Rinckney's law office in Binghamton.

"It's clear that New York wants to protect many classes of individuals, including by sexual orientation," he said.

When the state legalized gay marriage in 2009, a new question arose: did businesses have the right to refuse to serve a gay wedding?

The state's Division of Human Rights said no in 2014. The key case involved a gay couple who wanted to get married at a rustic barn outside Albany. The owners refused based on religious grounds.

The state fined Liberty Ridge Farm $10,000 and ordered them to pay $1,500 each to the two participants. A public business cannot deny service to a gay person based on religious belief, a judge ruled. The farm is not a religious entity entitled to special exemptions.

Refusing to host a gay wedding at a public business "is clearly a violation of protected rights," Charnetsky said.

Some differences exist between the Albany case and what Dailey and Needham describe here.

For one, the Albany farm's owner never backed down from her contention that she had a right to refuse hosting a gay marriage ceremony as a private business. Second, the Albany couple described having their hearts set on that location, and it took "months" to find a new one.

In Dailey and Needham's case, they were looking at several venues and are close to picking another one.

But that doesn't excuse what happened, Needham and Dailey say.

"We are human beings, just like anybody else," Dailey said. "We're not asking to impose on anybody's else beliefs or opinions, we just to celebrate our love as any other two people would."

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