New Mexico Supreme Court Unanimously Rules Against Discriminating Anti-Gay Photographer

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"New Mexico Supreme Court Unanimously Rules Against Discriminating Anti-Gay Photographer"

New Mexico Supreme Court

The New Mexico Supreme Court has unanimously ruled against a photographer who claimed it was her religious right to refuse service to a same-sex couple. Elane Photography has been a conservative icon for “religious liberty” ever since Elaine Huguenin’s 2006 decision to not document a same-sex couple’s commitment ceremony because of her Christian beliefs. She has been defending herself in court ever since with support from the Alliance Defending Freedom, and has lost at every step.

The Court ruled that her refusal of service unequivocally violated the New Mexico Human Rights Act (NMHRA), which protects against discrimination based on sexual orientation:

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 antidiscrimination provisions of the NMHRA 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.

Further, the Court explained that Elane Photography’s attempt to distinguish between sexual orientation and behaviors undermines the intention of the NMHRA:

Elane Photography’s argument is an attempt to distinguish between an individual’s status of being homosexual and his or her conduct in openly committing to a person of the same sex. It was apparently Willock’s e-mail request to have Elane Photography photograph Willock’s commitment ceremony to another woman that signaled Willock’s sexual orientation to Elane Photography, regardless of whether that assessment was real or merely perceived. The difficulty in distinguishing between status and conduct in the context of sexual orientation discrimination is that people may base their judgment about an individual’s sexual orientation on the individual’s conduct. To allow discrimination based on conduct so closely correlated with sexual orientation would severely undermine the purpose of the NMHRA.

Moreover, abiding by the NMHRA’s nondiscrimination protections does not violate Elane Photography’s freedom of speech, because the law does not compel businesses to speak the government’s message or the message of another speaker. If Elane Photography wishes to be a public business, it does not sacrifice its freedom of speech, but it simply must abide by the law:

If a commercial photography business believes that the NMHRA stifles its creativity, it can remain in business, but it can cease to offer its services to the public at large. Elane Photography’s choice to offer its services to the public is a business decision, not a decision about its freedom of speech. [...]

Elane Photography and its owners likewise retain their First Amendment rights to express their religious and political beliefs. They may, for example, post a disclaimer on their website or in their studio advertising that they oppose same-sex marriage but that they comply with applicable antidiscrimination laws.

This is an important victory for the LGBT community. Notably, New Mexico does not currently offer marriage equality state-wide — though it may soon — so this decision once again proves that marriage equality itself does not have anything to do with the enforcement of nondiscrimination protections. And, as the Court ruled, discriminating against people for being gay is no different than discriminating against any other class of people, guaranteeing protections for the state’s LGBT community in the future.

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