The New Mexico Court of Appeals upheld a ruling by the state’s Civil Rights Commission that a Christian photographer who refused to take pictures of a gay couple’s commitment ceremony violated the state’s discrimination law.
“Elane Photography may not discriminate in its commercial activities against protected classes as the basis for expressing its religious freedom,” Judge Tim Garcia wrote in a 45-page ruling.
The case dates back to 2006 when Vanessa Willock tried to hire Elane Photography for a “same-gender ceremony.” New Mexico law does not recognize either marriage or civil unions between persons of the same sex.
Elane Hugenin declined to accept the job and explained to Willock that because of their Christian beliefs the studio only handled “traditional weddings.”
In 2008 the New Mexico Human Rights Commission found Elane Photography guilty of “sexual orientation” discrimination. The studio is owned by a young Christian husband and wife who based their refusal on their religious beliefs.
The Court of Appeals determined that a photo studio is considered a public accommodation – much like a restaurant or a store. As such, the photo studio may not refuse services based on sexual orientation or gender identity – even if doing so would violate the religious principles of the owners.
“The owners of Elane Photography must accept the reasonable regulations and restrictions imposed upon the conduct of their commercial enterprise despite their personal religious beliefs that may conflict with these government interests,” Garcia wrote..
The Alliance Defense Fund, a Christian legal advocacy group, represented the photography studio. They plan to appeal the ruling.
“Americans in the marketplace should not be subjected to legal attacks for simply abiding by their beliefs,” senior counsel Jordan Lorence said in a statement. “Because the Constitution prohibits the state from forcing unwilling artists to promote a message they disagree with, we will certainly appeal this decision to the New Mexico Supreme Court.”
But the court ruled that once a business offers a service publicly, they must do so “without impermissible exception.”
Elane Photography posed a hypothetical situation to support its argument – imaging what would happen if an African-American photographer refused to photograph a Ku-Klux-Klan rally because the photographer “wanted to refrain from using her photography to communicate a message that she finds deeply offensive.”
However, Judge Garcia said the argument fails as a matter of law.
“The Ku-Klux-Klan is not a protected class,” he wrote. “Sexual orientation, however, is protected.”
The court ruled that the Christian photography company must pay fines totaling nearly $7,000.
You can read the entire court decision by clicking here.