The New Mexico Supreme Court ruled yesterday that a photography studio violated the the New Mexico Human Rights Act (NMHRA) by refusing to photograph a same-sex wedding. Vanessa Willock was told that Elane Photography had a moral objection to her gay wedding and sued under the act, which “prohibits a public accommodation from refusing to offer its services to a person based on that person’s sexual orientation.” The case is the latest in a growing number of such conflicts between religious beliefs and anti-discrimination laws. Because this is an expressive activity, it raises some difficult questions under the first amendment rights of the owners of Elane Photography, Jonathan and Elaine Huguenin. As one justice noted in concurrence, this is “the price of citizenship.” However, there remains the question of the right of citizens not to be forced to express ideas or values with which they disagree. That concern rests on a distinction between an expressive activity like photography and a cab or a movie theater in public accommodation.
The decision is well-written and well-conceived. I particularly like the part of the concurring opinion by Justice Richard C. Bosson, writing in concurrence, where he states that the case “teaches that at some point in our lives all of us must compromise, if only a little, to accommodate the contrasting values of others. A multicultural, pluralistic society, one of our nation’s strengths, demands no less.” I happen to agree with that sentiment. However, I remain concerned over the impact on first amendment rights.
The Court made a reasonable distinction between the Huguenin’s conduct as opposed to their beliefs. The law governs conduct in public accommodation. Thus, “in the “world of the marketplace, of commerce, of public accommodation, the Huguenins have to channel their conduct, not their beliefs, so as to leave space for other Americans who believe something different.”
The New Mexico Human Rights Council ordered Elane Photography to pay Willock $6,637.94 in attorneys fees and costs after finding a violation of the law.
The Court takes on the first amendment issues directly. The Court drew a compelling comparison to the Supreme Court decision against law schools who had refused to permit military recruiters to participate in their recruitment or placement activities:
Elane Photography’s argument here is more analogous to the claims raised by the law schools in Rumsfeld. In that case, a federal law made universities’ federal funding contingent on the universities allowing military recruiters access to university facilities and services on the same basis as other, non-military recruiters. 547 U.S. at 52-53. A group of law schools that objected to the ban on gays in the military challenged the law on a number of constitutional grounds, including that the law in question compelled them to speak the government’s message. Id. at 52, 53, 61-62. In order to assist the military recruiters, schools had to provide services that involved speech, “suchas sending e-mails and distributing flyers.” Id. at 60.The United States Supreme Court held that this requirement did not constitute compelled speech. Id. at 62. The Court observed that the federal law “neither limits what law schools may say nor requires them to say anything.” Id. at 60. Schools were compelled only to provide the type of speech-related services to military recruiters that they provided to non-military recruiters. Id. at 62. “There [was] nothing . . . approaching a Government-mandated pledge or motto that the school [had to] endorse.”
The problem is that a photographer does more than offer a facility. He uses an interpretive skill and art form to frame an event. This is more akin to a writer or painter as an expressive form. Of course, the problem is that many forms of public accommodation could claim expressive components from bakers to tailors. The Court has drawn a line at the government requiring newspapers or publications to carry opposing views. See Miami Herald Publishing Co. v. Tornillo, 418 U.S. 241, 244 (1974) (invalidating Florida’s “‘right of reply’” statute);
Pacific Gas & Electric Co. v. Public Utilities Commission of California, 475 U.S. 1, 4, 20-21, 26 (1986) (plurality opinion) (holding unconstitutional an order to allow a third-party group to send out message with a utility’s billing statements). In one such case, Hurley v. Irish- Am. Gay, Lesbian & Bisexual Grp. of Boston, 515 U.S. 557, 569 (1995) where it ruled that a parade could exclude a gay rights groups rather than force it to include an expressive component in its banner and advocacy.
The Court again draws a compelling distinction:
“Elane Photography does not routinely publish for or display its wedding photographs to the public. Instead, it creates an album for each customer and posts the photographs on a password-protected website for the customers and their friends and family to view. Whatever message Elane Photography’s photographs may express, they express that message only to the clients and their loved ones, not to the public.”
Yet, a photographer does not simply produce robotic or reflective images. They interact with subjects of their photos and arrange scenes to capture the essence of an event. For that reason, I was not convinced that photographs of this kind are solely the expression of the couple and not the photographer.
My concern is with the speech as opposed to the association. While the couple argued that third parties could conclude that their pictures show approval of same-sex relationships, the Court correctly notes that “They may . . . 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.” Yet, I wonder if such statements could be challenged next as creating a hostile environment.
In the end, I remain torn by this ruling. I see the logic and the precedent for the decision. However, I have lingering discomfort with a required expressive act like photography. It is in my view a close question and I would love to read the thoughts of our blog on the issues. There may be no way to accommodate such expressive rights in a public accommodation law. However, that would require deeply religious businesses to either shutdown or engage in ceremonies that they find morally objectionable. It is a tough call despite my long-standing support for same-sex marriage and gay rights. What do you think?
Here is the opinion: sc33687