Human Rights Victory: New Mexico Court Says ‘Religious Liberty’ Doesn't Justify Photographer’s Refusal To Shoot Same-Sex Ceremony

It is critical that judges see things the way the New Mexico Supreme Court did. If not, there is the potential not just for legal chaos, but also for some really ugly acts in the name of “religious expression.”

There’s a lot of talk these days about the meaning of “religious liberty” and whether or not an individual or corporation may be exempted from various laws if those statutes conflict with their sincerely held religious beliefs. Yesterday, however, the New Mexico Supreme Court took a step toward ending that debate when it said a photographer didn’t have the right to refuse to shoot a same-sex commitment ceremony.

Back in 2006, Elaine Huguenin, who owns Elaine Photography along with her husband, refused to take photos of a commitment ceremony for Vanessa Wilcock and her partner. (New Mexico law neither permits nor prohibits same-sex marriage, though the state now issues marriage licenses for same-sex couples.)

Wilcock was able to find another photographer, the Associated Press reported, but she sued Huguenin anyway, claiming a violation of New Mexico’s Human Rights Act.

The Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), an Arizona-based Religious Right legal outfit founded by radio and television preachers, said Huguenin had every right not to shoot Wilcock’s ceremony because of her religious beliefs.  

But the New Mexico high court didn’t buy that argument, saying in a unanimous decision that Huguenin’s action was the equivalent of refusing to photograph an interracial wedding, the AP reported.

Business owners “have to channel their conduct, not their beliefs, so as to leave space for other Americans who believe something different,” Justice Richard Bosson wrote in the opinion.

“That compromise is part of the glue that holds us together as a nation, the tolerance that lubricates the varied moving parts of us a people,” Bosson continued. “That sense of respect we owe others, whether or not we believe as they do, illuminates this country, setting it apart from the discord that afflicts much of the rest of the world. In short, I would say to the Huguenins, with the utmost respect: It is the price of citizenship.”

The court did, however, leave a little wiggle room for people like Huguenin: businesses have the right to advertise that they oppose same-sex marriage, but they still have to comply with anti-discrimination laws, the AP said.

Of course that wasn’t acceptable to Jordan Lorence, the ADF attorney who represented Huguenin.

“Government-coerced expression is a feature of dictatorships that has no place in a free country,” Lorence said in a statement. “This decision is a blow to our client and every American’s right to live free.”

He said he is considering an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, the AP added.

As is so often the case, the court got it exactly right and the ADF is completely wrong. Wilcock was unfairly discriminated against, period. No one has the right to just ignore any human rights laws they don’t like – no matter the reason.

And defending human rights is hardly the act of a dictatorship – in fact, it would seem the responsibility of any democratic government.

The outcome of this case is something the ADF and its allies simply cannot accept, which is why these sorts of issues are going to be argued in courts throughout America for years to come.

That’s why it is critical that judges see things the way the New Mexico Supreme Court did. If not, there is the potential not just for legal chaos, but also for some really ugly acts in the name of “religious expression.”

True religious freedom is about practicing whatever belief system you like, but not to the point that it infringes on the rights of others. Until everyone accepts that, I’m afraid there will be many more instances of hatred justified by piety.