The Supreme Court has decided not to review the case of Elane Photography v. Willock, which pitted a lesbian couple against a photographer who refused to take pictures of their commitment ceremony. That means the court decision finding that the photographer violated New Mexico’s Human Rights Act will stand.
The photographer argued that the First Amendment protected her freedom of conscience and expression, and that the government could not compel her to take particular pictures. “This issue is all about the government forcing a citizen to communicate a message against her will and against her beliefs,” said Alan Sears of the Alliance Defending Freedom, which mounted the photographer’s legal defense.
The couple argued that the photographer, as a commercial enterprise, was required to treat them equally under New Mexico’s Human Rights Act. “Every business has to play by the same rules to protect customers from discrimination in the marketplace," said Joshua Block of the American Civil Liberties Union.
New Mexico’s Supreme Court agreed, concluding that the photographer’s violation of state law was the same “as if it had refused to photograph a wedding between people of different races.”
The U.S. Supreme Court turned down the appeal without comment, but the question of whether businesses are required to do business with gay customers is far from settled. Fewer than half the states have laws prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.
And the debate about how to balance gay rights and religious freedom continues. In Colorado, a judge ruled against a baker who didn’t want to create a custom cake for a same-sex couple. A Washington florist and a T-shirt maker in Kentucky also turned down work for gay customers. In February, Arizona’s governor vetoed a bill that would have allowed companies to deny services to gays.
Freedom of conscience was a major issue for some founders. Thomas Jefferson authored Virginia’s Statute for Religious Freedom, which became law in 1786. Jefferson’s main concern was getting rid of religious requirements in public life, but the principles he espoused have been a cornerstone of American religious freedom.
Either side of the debate might find ammunition for their point of view. Jefferson strongly opposed any government coercion: “to compel a man to furnish contributions of money for the propagation of opinions which he disbelieves, is sinful and tyrannical.”
But Jefferson also wrote: “our civil rights have no dependence on our religious opinions, any more than our opinions in physics or geometry.”
The Bill of Rights spelled out the American vision for freedom and equality, but it did not solve the problem of how to balance these values when they came into conflict.
How should we reconcile equal rights with religious freedom?