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As an Artist, Here’s Why It’s So Important to Be Able to Create Freely

For me, it’s my religious beliefs that discern what I can and can’t create.
Alliance Defending Freedom
For me, it’s my religious beliefs that discern what I can and can’t create.

by ADF client Emilee Carpenter

From the moment I picked up a camera, I knew what I wanted to do with it: tell stories and create something meaningful. Now, as an artist, wife, and mom who runs my own photography studio, that is what I do every day, especially for my wedding photography clients. From the “Yes!” of engagement to the “I do” of the ceremony, my goal is to capture and celebrate the most joyful, most authentic moments of a couple’s marriage story.

It’s an incredible job. But equally as important, it brings a lot of responsibility. My work is about identifying the best part of an event and celebrating its truth and goodness. That is no different than many other artists who seek to live out their values. It’s hard to put everything you have in to celebrating something you disagree with. There’s a reason environment-conscious web designers don’t create websites promoting Exxon, or Democrat calligraphers don’t write pro-conservative pamphlets defending Republican politicians.

For me, it’s my religious beliefs that discern what I can and can’t create. And in order to stay true to my faith, there are certain messages that I cannot celebrate for anyone.

Because I believe that God created all people in His image, I cannot create photographs that demean or objectify anyone. I also decline requests for wedding photography that ask me to create photographs in a style that’s not my own. And because I—along with billions of other people around the world—believe that God created marriage as the sacred union between one man and one woman, I cannot celebrate or promote a view of marriage that goes against that belief.

Not everyone agrees with my beliefs, and that is fine. That is part of what it means to live in a truly diverse country where our freedoms of speech and of conscience are guaranteed by the Constitution; different people holding different ideas living side-by-side. No one is required to give up their beliefs as the price of admittance, nor are they silenced. I am committed to serving everyone who comes to my photography studio, no matter what they believe. I just cannot use my art to promote certain messages.

Let me put it this way: if an LGBT couple asked me to photograph their corporate Christmas party, I would do so gladly. But if a Christian asked me to create photographs demeaning someone, I would not be able to do it. I always consider what I will be celebrating, not who asks me.

Across New York state, where I live, thousands of photographers and other artists are making these same decisions every day. It is part of being an artist and creating imagery that conveys ideas and promotes certain values; all artists look to their conscience and their beliefs to decide what to create. A Muslim singer may decide that her faith does not permit her to sing at a Christian Easter service. A Jewish graphic designer might decline to create Christmas cards depicting the baby Jesus. A pacifist painter may decline to create a painting glorifying the battlefield.

Those same choices should be protected in my state. Our country and our state are better off for it, too, respecting the freedom of each individual to promote what they believe rather than let the government dictate that choice. But my choice is not respected.

New York protects the rights of some artists, but not all. The state is trying to force me, and all artists who share my beliefs, to create and promote messages that go against our consciences. It is refusing to acknowledge the simple reality that while I serve everyone, I cannot promote all messages. The state is threatening to ruin my business, fine me up to $100,000, and put me in jail for up to a year.

It feels scary to have my home state trying to punish me for using my constitutional rights. But looking around, I can see I’m not alone. There is a case coming before the Supreme Court ( 303 Creative v. Elenis) this December considering this very question. In that case, a graphic artist named Lorie Smith is asking the Court to uphold her constitutional rights against the state of Colorado’s efforts to punish her for her views. In Kentucky, a young photographer is standing up for her rights and won a case nearly identical to mine. Across the nation, artists are standing up for their right to freedom of speech and freedom of conscience, and they are winning.

That is why I decided to file a lawsuit to challenge New York’s unjust laws and why my attorneys at Alliance Defending Freedom have asked a federal appellate court in New York to protect my freedom. Freedom of speech is a precious part of our national heritage. It is also a two-way street. The state cannot pick and choose whose speech is protected, and whose isn’t. Every person has the right to make decisions about what content and messages she will promote, and I am willing to go to court to advocate for all of us to exercise that right freely.

Alliance Defending Freedom
Alliance Defending Freedom

ADF team members contributed to the writing and publication of this article.