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AG Coakley Backs Gay Couple In Dispute With Church

Friday Mar 14, 2014
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Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley
Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley  (Source:AP Photo/Steven Senne)

Attorney General Martha Coakley filed a court brief Thursday in support of a married gay couple who sued the Roman Catholic Diocese of Worcester for allegedly refusing to sell them a Northbridge mansion because church officials were concerned they would host gay weddings at the site.

James Fairbanks and Alain Beret filed their lawsuit in Worcester Superior Court in 2012. They allege that in the middle of negotiations to buy Oakhurst, a former retreat center affiliated with the diocese, church officials suddenly pulled out.

They say they inadvertently received an email from the chancellor of the diocese to the church’s broker saying the reason was the "potentiality of gay marriages" at the facility.

"Our laws provide important protections for religious organizations and people of faith," Coakley said in a written statement Thursday. "These laws also strike a balance between religious freedoms and the rights of individuals to be free from discrimination."

The diocese has said it stopped negotiations over concerns about whether the buyers could finance the purchase and that email refers only to the possibility of gay weddings being held at the site, not the couple’s sexual orientation, which they said never came up during negotiations.

The diocese also has argued that the state’s antidiscrimination laws do not apply to its conduct in this case, citing legal exemptions and constitutional protections.

Coakley argues that the state’s antidiscrimination law applies to the public, commercial sale of real property by the diocese. She says the diocese’s religious rights aren’t burdened by the sale of the property to the plaintiffs.

Coakley also argues that Massachusetts’ 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 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," she added.

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