New Mexico Appeals Court Rejects Claim That Religious Right Can Ignore Anti-Discrimination Laws

Unlike federal law, which does not explicitly protect against discrimination targeting gay men and lesbians, New Mexico law forbids “any person in any public accommodation to make a distinction, directly or indirectly, in offering or refusing to offer its services” because of their sexual orientation. Nevertheless, a New Mexico photography company refused to photograph a same-sex couple’s commitment ceremony, claiming that it is immune to the law because it’s owners are Christian conservatives. Last week, a New Mexico appeals court rejected this claim, tossing out several arguments including the suggestion that the Constitution’s guarantee of religious liberty includes the power to simply ignore anti-discrimination laws:

A state implicates the free exercise clause when it places burdens upon religious practitioners because of their affiliation or beliefs. But “the right of free exercise does not relieve an individual of the obligation to comply with a valid and neutral law of general applicability on the ground that the law proscribes (or prescribes) conduct that his religion prescribes (or proscribes).” . . . [T]he case at bar is generally applicable and neutral; it does not selectively burden any religion or religious belief. [New Mexico’s anti-discrimination law] applies generally to all citizens transacting commerce and business through public accommodations that deal with the public at large, and any burden on religion or some religious beliefs is incidental and uniformly applied to all citizens.

The New Mexico court’s decision highlights exactly what is at stake if courts adopt some of the outlandish theories of “religious liberty” being advanced by Catholic bishops and by leading conservative lawmakers. Although this case dealt with anti-gay discrimination, if religious conservatives are permitted to ignore laws protecting gay people (or, quite possibly, laws ensuring that women will have access to birth control) than the same reasoning would exempt people with religious objections to laws forbidding discrimination against African-Americans or women.