AG Coakley Argues that Worcester Diocese May Not Discriminate Against Gay Couple
Files Brief in Discrimination Suit Alleging that the Catholic Church Refused to Sell Property Based on Sexual Orientation of the Purchasers
WORCESTER – Arguing that religious organizations can be subject to the requirements of Massachusetts’ antidiscrimination laws, Attorney General Martha Coakley today filed a brief in support of a married gay couple who sued the Roman Catholic Diocese of Worcester and its realtor for refusing to sell a commercial property to them.
“Our laws provide important protections for religious organizations and people of faith,” AG Coakley said. “These laws also strike a balance between religious freedoms and the rights of individuals to be free from discrimination. In this case, we believe that this family was unfairly discriminated against by the Diocese when it refused to sell them property based on their sexual orientation.”
The brief was filed today in the case of Fairbanks, et al. v. House of Affirmation, Inc., et al. (Civ. No. 2012-01807-B) in Worcester Superior Court. According to the complaint, plaintiffs Fairbanks and Beret, who have been in a relationship for more than 30 years and married since 2004, sought to pursue a new business opportunity when they made an offer for a listed property in Northbridge in May 2012. The Oakhurst property is an historic mansion set on 26 acres, and previously owned by House of Affirmation, Inc., an affiliate of the Worcester Diocese. While the Diocese accepted the plaintiffs’ initial offer, the deal fell apart during negotiations.
When informing the plaintiffs by email that the negotiations had ended, the Diocese’s realtor forwarded a separate email from the Diocese stating: “[b]ecause of the potentiality of gay marriages there we are not interested in going forward with these buyers.” The reason for the decision was not intended to be relayed to the couple. The Diocese also instructed the realtor to only tell the potential buyers that “the Diocese is making new plans for the property. You find the language.”
On September 10, 2012, the plaintiffs filed suit in Worcester Superior Court alleging that the Diocese had violated Massachusetts General Laws c. 151B, § 4 by refusing to sell or negotiate the sale of property because of their sexual orientation. Following the completion of discovery in the case, all parties moved for summary judgment in papers filed with the Worcester Superior Court on February 21, 2014.
In its summary judgment papers, the Diocese has argued that the state’s antidiscrimination laws do not apply to its conduct in this case, based on certain legal exemptions and constitutional protections. The AG’s amicus brief responds by arguing that the state’s anti-discrimination law applies to the public, commercial sale of real property by the Diocese. The brief contends that the Diocese’s religious rights are not burdened by the sale of the property to the plaintiffs. In addition, the AG argues that Massachusetts’s interest in eliminating discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation outweighs any burden on religious rights imposed by applying the antidiscrimination statute in this case.
In describing Massachusetts’s substantial and well-established commitment to ending sexual orientation discrimination, the AG’s brief highlights examples from all branches of government, including decisions by the Supreme Judicial Court, landmark laws passed by the Legislature, executive orders from the Governor, and enforcement actions by the Office of the Attorney General.
The Worcester Superior Court is scheduled to hear oral argument on the parties’ motions on April 22, 2014.
The matter was handled by Jonathan Miller, Chief of AG Coakley’s Civil Rights Division and Assistant Attorney General Joshua Jacobson of the Civil Rights Division.
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