Elane Photography Case Shows Why We Must Fight Against Government Coercion

Elaine Huguenin. (Photo courtesy of Alliance Defending Freedom)

Today, the Supreme Court declined to review Elane Photography v. Willock—the famous case involving a photographer who politely declined to tell the story of a same-sex commitment ceremony. While neither affirming nor rejecting the lower court’s ruling, the Supreme Court’s denial of certiorari means a New Mexico Supreme Court decision against the Huegenins’ right to free expression will stand.

Jordan Lorence, senior legal counsel for Alliance Defending Freedom, which is representing the Huguenins, explains:

“It is important to note that the Supreme Court did not ‘uphold’ the repressive decision of the New Mexico Supreme Court but merely decided not to hear the case. We don’t know why, but this is not an affirmance of the lower court opinion. The high court’s decision today sets no legal precedent. There are other cases now in the pipeline and probably more to follow that will likely reach the Supreme Court.”

What was the case all about? The Huguenins run Elane Photography, a small business in Albuquerque, N.M. In 2006, the couple declined a request to photograph a same-sex commitment ceremony because, as Elaine explains, “the message a same-sex commitment ceremony communicates is not one I believe.”

Elane Photography didn’t refuse to take pictures of gay and lesbian individuals, but it did decline to photograph a ceremony that ran counter to the owners’ belief that marriage is the union of a man and a woman (an understanding of marriage that New Mexico law upholds). Other photographers in the Albuquerque area were more than happy to photograph the event.

But in 2008, the New Mexico Human Rights Commission ruled that the Huguenins, by declining to use their artistic and expressive skills to communicate what occurred at the ceremony, had discriminated based on sexual orientation. At the end of 2013, the New Mexico Supreme Court upheld the Human Rights Commission ruling. Justice Richard C. Bosson, in a concurring opinion, made the claim that requiring the Huguenins to relinquish their religious convictions was permissible as “the price of citizenship.”

But that is not the true price of citizenship. Part of the genius of the American system of government is our commitment to protecting the liberty and First Amendment freedoms of all citizens while respecting their equality before the law. The government protects the freedom of citizens to seek the truth about God and speak in accordance with that truth as they understand it. Citizens are free to form contracts and other associations according to their own values.

As the Supreme Court has held, the First Amendment protects “the right of individuals to hold a point of view different from the majority, and to refuse to foster . . .an idea they find morally objectionable.” The freedom of speech includes forms of expression such as taking photographs.

Our government is supposed to protect American citizens and these freedoms, not act as a menace to both. Freedom of speech means that all citizens are free from both government censorship and government coercion of speech. One need not agree with the Huguenins to recognize that government should not coerce speech or punish citizens for not speaking against their will.

Unfortunately, disrespect and intolerance of those who believe marriage is the union of a man and woman seem increasingly to be the norm. Unwilling to acknowledge this as a significant question on which reasonable people of goodwill can disagree, some advocates of redefining marriage increasingly characterize those with whom they disagree as “enemies of the human race.” They’ve sent a clear message: If you stand up for marriage, we will demonize and marginalize you. And even use the law to coerce and penalize you.

The Huguenins and numerous other individuals who have found themselves on the wrong side of the left’s intolerance remain hopeful that lower courts will recognize their First Amendment right to freely express their views about marriage.

In the meantime, all citizens must work to make sure that the law does not penalize those who believe what virtually every human society has believed about marriage: that it is the union of a man and a woman ordered to procreation and family life. Such belief must not be treated as an irrational prejudice to be purged from the culture. Americans like the Huguenins are now seeing the ugly consequences of such coercion, and the threats they face are the opposite of civil or tolerant.

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