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Gay couple claims Worcester diocese refused to sell them commercial property
Catholic News Service

WORCESTER, Mass.  -- Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley March 13 filed a brief in support of a married gay couple who have sued the Diocese of Worcester and its realtor for allegedly refusing to sell a commercial property to them.

Coakley 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 the Oakhurst Conference Center in 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 has 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 Fairbanks and 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.

Coakley's brief only deals with the First Amendment issue regarding the free exercise of religion -- arguing that the diocese's religious rights would not be burdened by the sale -- and the diocese will address her argument in a subsequent filing, he said.

Both parties have filed motions for summary judgment, Reardon said.

Coakley's office said 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 (attorney general'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 (attorney general) 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 in Worcester Superior Court in the case of Fairbanks, et al. v. House of Affirmation, Inc., et al. The Superior Court is scheduled to hear oral arguments on the motions April 22.

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