The Supreme Court has refused to hear an appeal by a New Mexico photography business that didn’t want to photograph a same-sex wedding on grounds of religious objections — but this refusal has wider implications for the current gay rights fight. Here’s why it matters.
The case centers on the business practices of Elane Photography, a wedding photography company based in New Mexico and run by husband and wife Jonathan and Elaine Huguenin. The photography company found itself on the other end of a discrimination claim when in 2006 it refused to photograph Vanessa Willock and Misti Collinsworth, a same-sex couple who sought to hire the company to photograph their commitment ceremony. Elane Photography’s Elaine Huguenin refused the couple on grounds that the ceremony resembled a marriage and therefore went against her religious beliefs.
In 2008, the state of New Mexico decided Elane Photography as a business offering a public service had violated the state’s comprehensive Human Rights Act (HRA) which protects people on the basis of standard enumerated classes like race, sex, religion, national origin, and in this case, sexual orientation. The company was then ordered to pay thousands of dollars in attorneys’ fees and cease its discriminatory practices.
Elane Photography, perhaps spurred on by the ever eager Christian legal group Alliance Defending Freedom, who would later champion their case, appealed that decision through the courts, claiming that the order against them violated their constitutional rights and in particular that it violated the First Amendment’s guarantee against compelled speech. In effect, they argued that the New Mexico Human Rights Act was trying to force them into condoning same-sex partnerships. The appeal worked its way through the state courts before eventually being heard by the New Mexico Supreme Court.
In 2013, the state Supreme Court ruled against Elane Photography and upheld the charge of discrimination. In the ruling, the justices issued the following comment which seems to strike at the heart of the matter:
“We conclude that a commercial photography business that offers its services to the public, thereby increasing its visibility to potential clients, is subject to the anti-discrimination provisions of the [New Mexico Human Rights Act] and must serve same-sex couples on the same basis that it serves opposite-sex couples. Therefore, when Elane Photography refused to photograph a same-sex commitment ceremony, it violated the NMHRA in the same way as if it had refused to photograph a wedding between people of different races.”
Elane Photography then turned to the federal courts, essentially asking for them to rule that the religious right to discriminate is a freedom of speech issue. The federal courts seemed unconvinced and this week the Supreme Court of the United States refused to take on Elane Photography’s case. They did so unanimously and without comment, meaning that in this regard the SCOTUS is unified in agreement that the lower courts had struck the right balance.
Why is the Supreme Court’s Refusal to Take this Case Important?
To understand this development’s importance, it’s actually helpful to take a look at the statement issued by Elane Photography’s legal team, the ADF. On the SCOTUS’s refusal to take the case, they say:
“The First Amendment protects our freedom to speak or not speak on any issue without fear of punishment. We had hoped the U.S. Supreme Court would use this case to affirm this basic constitutional principle; however, the court will likely have several more opportunities to do just that in other cases of ours that are working their way through the court system. Americans oppose unjust laws that strong-arm citizens to express ideas against their will. Elaine and numerous others like her around the country have been more than willing to serve any and all customers, but they are not willing to promote any and all messages. A government that forces any American to create a message contrary to her own convictions is a government every American should fear.”
As we can see, this is part of the ADF’s wider agenda. It hopes to be able to argue before the Supreme Court of the United States and win so as to establish that religion, in this case shoehorned under the First Amendment, should be privileged over the civil rights of same-sex couples. So far, the ADF has found very little support at the state or federal level but with every failure there is the opportunity to add nuance to the argument.
The SCOTUS’ refusal to hear this case seems to send a strong message, though: the ADF can’t hope to prevail by trying to use a First Amendment claim against compelled speech. For states like Mississippi and others that are rushing to pass what have been dubbed “religious right to discriminate” bills, that’s a blow as it was perhaps one of their strongest refuges.
That said, it’s important to contextualize that the case didn’t directly hinge on the right to religious conscience or freedom of religion, although obviously they are part of the whole. We can expect, then, to see more claims on such particular grounds as the Religious Right tries desperately to cling on to its belief that it has the freedom to ignore civil rights legislation. The Supreme Court’s refusal, though, has narrowed the playing field somewhat, and that is something to be celebrated.
Photo credit: Thinkstock.