New Mexico Trial Court Upholds Sanctions Based on Wedding Photographer’s Refusal to Photograph a Same-Sex Wedding Ceremony

The case is Elane Photography, LLC v. Willock, and I blogged about it here, when it was being considered by the New Mexico Human Rights Commission. The decision was handed down last Friday, but the opinion wasn’t distributed until yesterday. I hope to blog more about it today, but here’s my analysis from last year:

Elaine Huguenin co-owns Elane Photography with her husband. The bulk of Elane’s work is done by Elaine, though she subcontracts some of the work some of the time. Elane refused to photograph Vanessa Willock’s same-sex commitment ceremonies, and just today the New Mexico Human Rights Commission held that this violated state antidiscrimination law. Elane has been ordered to pay over $6600 in attorney’s fees and costs….

[The order rests] on two interpretations of state law: (1) This sort of photography company constitutes a “public accommodation,” defined by state law “any establishment that provides or offers its services, facilities, accommodations or goods to the public, but does not include a bona fide private club or other place or establishment that is by its nature and use distinctly private.” (2) A refusal to photograph a same-sex commitment ceremony constitutes sexual orientation discrimination, which New Mexico law forbids. These may or may not be sensible interpretations of the statutory text. But the result seems to me to likely violate the First Amendment (though there’s no precedent precisely on point).

[1. Compelled Speech.] Photography is an art, and Huguenin is an artist. It may not be high art, but it embodies a wide range of artistic choices (especially since she says she takes a “photojournalist” approach, rather than just doing normal staged photos). And though she sells the art to its subjects, that is of course part of a long and continuing tradition in the arts, including painting and sculpture, as well as photography. Certainly many of the works protected by the First Amendment (books, newspapers, movies, and the like) were created for money and distributed for money.

Yet the New Mexico government is now telling Huguenin that she must create art works that she does not choose to create. There’s no First Amendment case squarely on point, but this does seem pretty close to the cases in which the Court held that the government may not compel people to express views that they do not endorse (the flag salute case, West Va. Bd. of Ed. v. Barnette, and the license plate slogan case, Wooley v. Maynard).

For whatever it’s worth, Huguenin also says she exercises political judgment in deciding what to photograph (for instance, she reports that she refuses to make photographs that put horror films in a positive light, or to take photographs that positively portray abortion, pornography, or nudity, as well as same-sex marriage). I don’t think that sort of political selectivity should be required for photographers to be protected as artists, but it seems to me to highlight the scope of the artist’s judgment, and the artist’s constitutional right to exercise such judgment (just as a bookstore has the right to choose which books to stock).

Consider also a hypothetical analogy: Say that instead of Willock’s trying to hire a photographer, Willock was trying to hire a solo freelance writer (or a writer in a two-person freelancing partnership) to write materials for Willock’s (hypothetical) same-sex marriage planning company. The writer refused on the grounds that she didn’t want to promote such a company.

I take it the law would cover the writer as much as it would cover the photographer (why wouldn’t it?). Yet wouldn’t requiring writers — even writers of press releases and Web sites — to write words that express views they reject violate the First Amendment? And if not, what’s the difference between that and requiring photographers to take photographs that implicitly but strongly express views they reject? (Wedding photographs, of course, express views celebrating the event being photographed.) …

[2. Religious Exemptions:] [And] the decision may also violate the photographer’s religious freedom rights under the New Mexico Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

The act, which is similar to the legal rules in place in about half the states and as to federal law, provides that

A government agency shall not restrict a person’s free exercise of religion [i.e., an act or a refusal to act that is substantially motivated by religious belief] unless … the application of the restriction to the person is essential to further a compelling governmental interest and is the least restrictive means of furthering that compelling governmental interest.

Elaine Huguenin’s refusal to photograph a same-sex commitment ceremony does seem to be substantially motivated by her religious belief. She is therefore entitled to an exemption unless applying the law to her passes “strict scrutiny” — “is the least restrictive means of furthering [and is essential to furthering a] compelling governmental interest.”

What government interests might justify denying Huguenin the exemption? If the interest is in making sure that people have roughly equal access to services, regardless of their sexual orientation, then I doubt that requiring Huguenin to photograph the ceremony is essential to serving that interest. There surely are lots of other photographers in Albquerque, and I have no reason to think that all or even most of them share Huguenin’s religious objections; if Huguenin is given an exemption, same-sex couples will still have lots of photography services available to them. And given that a wedding photographer, to do a great job, likely needs to feel some empathy with the ceremony, forcing the Huguenins of the world into photographing a ceremony that they disapprove of will likely not give same-sex couples very good service.

But if the government’s view is that people have a moral right not to be discriminated against — entirely independently of any practical burden that such discrimination imposes on them — based on their sexual orientation, then it would appear that every instance of sexual orientation discrimination would violate that right. And if the government has a compelling interest in vindicating that right, then granting an exemption even to a few religious objectors would jeopardize that interest, and denying the objection would be essential to maximally furthering the interest. On the other hand, can New Mexico assert such a compelling interest when it itself discriminates against same-sex couples in its marriage laws?

So the religious freedom issue would turn, I take it, on what version of the government interest New Mexico courts ultimately recognize — the first version, focusing on practical access to services, which should lead to granting an exemption, or the second, focusing on a supposed moral right not to be discriminated against, which should lead to denying an exemption (if the government is seen as having a compelling interest in protecting that right). Incidentally, in a similar area, marital status discrimination in housing against unmarried couples, the several state courts applying state religious accommodation regimes have split, based precisely on this issue of which sort of interest is involved.

I have more thoughts on the subject, including some replies to responses that I had gotten to my original arguments, here; and, as I said, I hope to blog more on this soon.