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Worcester Diocese is guilty of antigay bias, Coakley says

Attorney General Martha Coakley said Thursday that the Roman Catholic Diocese of Worcester illegally discriminated against a married gay couple by refusing to sell them property because of their sexual orientation.

Coakley’s office weighed in on a case pending in Worcester Superior Court in which a married gay couple, James Fairbanks and Alain Beret, contend that the diocese refused to sell them a historic mansion in Northbridge, which had been used for years by a church-
affiliated nonprofit retreat center, because the couple might host same-sex weddings there.

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Fairbanks and Beret, who wanted to operate the property as an inn that would hold weddings and other big events, contend the diocese accepted their initial offer in spring 2012, but eventually cut off negotiations.

The diocese’s real estate agent accidentally forwarded the couple an e-mail in which a diocesan official said the church was no longer interested in a deal “because of the potentiality of gay marriages there.”

The couple sued the diocese in September 2012. The parties moved for summary judgment last month, and oral arguments are scheduled for April 22. Coakley filed a friend-of-the-court brief on behalf of the couple Thursday.

“Our laws provide important protections for religious organizations and people of faith,” Coakley said in a statement. “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.”

In her brief, Coakley said that religious organizations do not have to comply with antidiscrimination laws in matters related to their internal workings, but that there is no exemption for third-party real estate transactions.

“The diocesan defendants need not perform, endorse, host, or remain silent concerning what their faith teaches them about the morality of same-sex marriage or homosexuality,” she wrote. “And no reasonable person would think that a wedding that took place on a property no longer owned by a church was endorsed by that church.”

The diocese says the sale fell through because of financing, not because the couple was gay or because they might host same-sex weddings at the property.

“They didn’t have money,” James Gavin Reardon Jr., a lawyer for the diocese, said in an interview Thursday. “They renegotiated the deal, and their financing was turned down.”

The church also contends the state’s antidiscrimination law provides an exemption for religious institutions that would apply in this case, allowing the church to refuse to sell to parties whose activities violate church teachings.

The diocese argues that its constitutional right to the free exercise of religion protects it from having to comply with the state’s antidiscrimination statute in the case. The Roman Catholic Church strongly objects to same-sex marriage and calls the practice of homosexuality intrinsically disordered.

“If a religious entity did not have to permit property to be used for gay weddings, which we all agree, why must religious property be sold to an organization if it is going to be used for a gay wedding?” Reardon said.

Lisa Wangsness can be reached at lisa.wangsness@globe.com.
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