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AG says religious organizations subject to anti-discrimination laws

Posted By March 13, 2014 | 6:27 pm | Local

Attorney General Martha Coakley Thursday filed a brief in support of a married gay couple who sued the Diocese of Worcester and its realtor for allegedly refusing to sell a commercial property to them. The attorney general argues that religious organizations can be subject to the requirements of Massachusetts’ anti-discrimination laws.
James Gavin Reardon Jr., attorney for the diocese, said that the diocese does not view this as a case of discrimination because the plaintiffs, James Fairbanks and Alain Beret, could not get financing for their original offer to buy the property.
“This is a contractual case where the buyer could not come up with the money,” he said.
The diocese put Oakhurst Conference Center, 120 Hill St., Whitinsville, on the market in early 2012 with a listing price of $1.4 million. The building, which had not been used since Aug. 31, 2011, had been headquarters for the diocesan Office for Youth Ministry. The 26-acre property had several buildings including a 15,000-square-foot mansion.
According to Reardon, no one in the diocese ever asked the marital status or the sexual orientation of Mr. Fairbanks and Mr. Beret. “This is undisputed,” he said.    The plaintiffs withdrew their original offer and came back with a lower offer of $550,000, saying the property was not worth what the diocese was asking and that they did not want all of the acreage, Reardon said. Negotiations stopped after that.
According to the attorney general’s press release, “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.’”
The plaintiffs filed suit in September alleging discrimination.
The property was sold to another party in October 2012 for $800,000.
Reardon said the attorney general requested permission to file the amicus brief and that her action was unusual at the trial level. The attorney general’s brief only deals with the First Amendment issue and the diocese will address her argument in a subsequent filing, he said.
Both parties have filed motions for summary judgment, Reardon said.
The attorney general’s office says that “in its summary judgment papers, the Diocese has argued that the state’s anti-discrimination 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 anti-discrimination statute in this case.”
The attorney general’s brief was filed Thursday in Worcester Superior Court in the case of Fairbanks, et al. v. House of Affirmation, Inc., et al. (Civ. No. 2012-01807-B). The Worcester Superior Court is scheduled to hear oral arguments on the motions on April 22.