Mother who teaches ‘everyone should be treated equally’ won’t allow daughter on FMS field trip to Liberty Ridge Farm

— Ellms Family Farm Facebook Page

Corn mazes at Ellms Family Farm abound — from a Storybook Maze to a Color Maze — and Sheri Thayil Hair’s daughter may find herself wending through one on Friday with her classmates from Farnsworth Middle school. She was originally scheduled to go, instead, on a trip to Liberty Ridge Farm with her teammates, but her mother objected, because of Liberty Ridge’s history. 

GUILDERLAND — Sheri Thayil Hair, the mother of a Farnsworth Middle School student, raised concerns to the school district about sending her daughter to Liberty Ridge Farm, the destination of a field trip this Friday for some sixth-graders at the school.
Liberty Ridge Farm in Schaghticoke was in the news when a lesbian couple complained in 2012 to the state’s Division of Human Rights that the venue had refused to hold their wedding there; the farm’s owners had told the couple they wouldn’t hold same-sex weddings there.

The Division of Human Rights sided with the couple and ordered the farm to pay $1,500 in compensatory damages to each member of the couple as well a $10,000 civil penalty. The farm owners were also ordered to stop engaging in discriminatory practicies and establish anti-discrimination training and procedures at the farm. 

 Farm owners Cynthia and Robert Gifford fought the decision in court and lost, with the New York State Appellate Division — the middle level in New York’s three-tiered judicial system — upholding the state’s decision in 2016.

Cynthia Gifford did not return calls asking for comment, and the woman who answered the phone at Liberty Ridge Farm declined comment on her behalf. 

Hair told The Enterprise that she and her husband are careful about where they spend their time and money. “This is essentially taking our choice away,” she said of the school’s field trip. 

Forced to comply

Liberty Ridge Farm now includes a statement on the wedding page of its website that fulfills the letter of the law and reads, “The patronage of all potential clients for all services offered is welcome regardless of race, creed, color, national origin, sexual orientation, military status, sex, disability or marital status. All couples legally permitted to marry in the state of New York are welcome to hold their wedding at Liberty Ridge Farm. We serve everyone equally.” 

However, directly above that statement, the wedding page has this: “At Liberty Ridge Farm, our deeply held religious belief is that marriage is the union of one man and one woman, and the Farm is operated with the purpose of strengthening and promoting marriage. In furtherance of this purpose and to honor and promote our moral and religious beliefs, we donate a portion of our wedding ceremony proceeds to organizations that promote strong marriages such as the Family Research Council.”  

The Family Research Council is a Christian not-for-profit research and educational organization that is against abortion and against equality for the LGBTQ community. One page on its website, titled “Homosexuality,” says that “homosexual conduct is harmful to the persons who engage in it and to society at large, and can never be affirmed.”

It suggests that people with same-sex attractions should be helped “to overcome those attractions.” The organization is against, the council says on its website, “the vigorous efforts of homosexual activists to demand that homosexuality be accepted as equivalent to heterosexuality in law, in the media, and in schools.” 

Hair said, “That’s the beauty of capitalism; we get to vote with our dollars.” The farm is free to make statements about its views on its website, she said, and patrons can then decide whether they want to take their children there. What she didn’t like, she said, was the school taking away her ability to decide. 

Melanie Trimble, executive director of the Capital Region chapter of the New York Civil Liberties Union, said, “We are pleased to see that the Farm is complying with the law despite not fully embracing diversity.” 

The NYCLU assisted the lesbian couple with their complaint to the state, and, when the farm owners sued to fight the decision, the organization’s attorneys represented the couple in court as well, Trimble said. 

Trimble added, “We caution public schools from engaging with a business that does not have all of their students’ interests and concerns at heart.” 


On Oct. 4, part of the sixth-grade class will visit Ellms Family Farm in Ballston Spa, and part will go to Liberty Ridge Farm. Farnsworth is divided into four houses and then further, in sixth grade, into teams of two classrooms each. Teams are going together to one of the two farms, and parents are asked to pay $14 for their children to take part. 

FMS Principal Michael Laster said that the trip is intended as a team-building activity near the start of students’ first year at the school. The farms were chosen, he said, on the basis of the number of age-appropriate activities they offer.

“Everyone I’ve spoken with says that it’s just one of the best corn mazes in the area,” he said of Liberty Ridge, which according to its website boasts a 100-acre corn maze. It also has “pumpkin shooters,” with which children can see how far they are able to launch the squash, and “human-sized gerbil wheels” where kids try to keep their balance as they travel across a dirt path inside huge wheels. 

Several parents expressed concerns to him, Laster said, after Hair mentioned her concerns on a Facebook site for FMS parents. 

Hair told The Enterprise she initially asked if her daughter could have an excused absence that day. She said that she had really wanted, with the excused absence, to have the school acknowledge that it had not given any thought to the question of tolerance when it chose this site.

She wanted the school to say, “‘We’re not making you pay for this,’” she said. 

She emphasized that she doesn’t believe the school chose Liberty Ridge “with any malicious intent.” 

Hair’s request for an excused absence was denied, and she asked that her daughter be allowed to go with other students to Ellms Family Farm instead. 

When she spoke about this with Laster, she said, he was very nice and very professional, but he emphasized that he wanted her daughter to get the benefits of the team-building experience with her classmates. 

She then contacted the local assemblywoman, Patricia Fahy, Hair said, and Fahy “facilitated a conversation with the superintendent.” 

“Part of my reaching out to Patricia Fahy,” Hair said, “was I wanted to make sure I was heard, and that, if a parent has a valid objection to something the school is doing, there should be a pathway.” 

Hair said she was very happy with her conversation with Superintendent Marie Wiles. “She heard me, and we were able to work so my daughter could have a good experience,” Hair said.

One of the other teams in her daughter’s house will be visiting Ellms Family Farm, and, next year, when the students are in seventh grade and their teams double in size, her daughter’s team will be combined with that team, said Laster. So deciding to send her with that team to Ellms Family Farm still serves as a team-building exercise, he said. 

“We’ll have some additional review of our field trips going forward,” Wiles told The Enterprise. 

Hair hopes her daughter will not experience any fallout from the issues she has raised. 

“Some of the values I’m trying to instill in my children are even as simple as kindness and justice, being a voice for others,” she said. 

Hair and her husband are “people of faith,” she said, and that faith “pushes us to pursue social-justice issues rather than exclude people.” 

“I try to make them aware,” she said of her children, “that everyone should be treated equally. We have a very diverse group of people we’re in contact with every day — co-workers, neighbors — and just teaching them to be respectful.”

Editor’s note: Elizabeth Floyd Mair has a daughter in the sixth grade at Farnsworth Middle School.

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