Many of the ideas that make our Constitution unique were born in Virginia.
Seven signers of the Constitution were from Virginia, and our nation’s first president, George Washington, was a Virginian. Other important Virginians include presidents Thomas Jefferson, the primary author of the Declaration of Independence, and James Madison, who is often called the “Father of the Constitution.”
So it’s disturbing that this founding state seems to have turned its back on one of the most important tenets of our republic: the protection of free speech.
In April 2020, Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam signed the so-called Virginia Values Act into law. Among other negative consequences, this law threatened artists with censorship, fines, and even closure of their businesses if they wouldn’t express the state’s preferred views.
Thankfully, one photographer took a stand to challenge this law.
Passion for photography
Bob Updegrove started out photographing school events and making slide shows while volunteering with a Christian youth ministry.
Today, as a photographer and the owner of Bob Updegrove Photography, Bob creates beautiful photographs for events of all kinds. Bob captures photos for churches, schools, businesses, conferences, families and special events. He also does wedding photography, including for people he photographed when they were in middle school.
There’s no question that Bob’s photographs are works of art, and as an artist, Bob expresses himself through his work. Bob is a Christian; he simply can’t create messages that go against his deeply held beliefs about marriage. And because free speech is protected by our Constitution, he shouldn’t have to choose between going against his beliefs and keeping his job. Yet that is exactly what a law in his state tried to force him to do. That’s why Bob took a stand and challenged this unconstitutional law in court.
The Virginia ‘Values’ Act
In 2020, the Virginia General Assembly passed the Virginia Values Act—otherwise known as a SOGI law because it adds “sexual orientation” and “gender identity” to already existing nondiscrimination laws. While proponents of SOGI laws claim they merely protect people from discrimination, in reality they’re much more complex than that—and much more dangerous.
SOGI laws are often enforced against individuals, business owners, and nonprofit organizations that simply want to live and operate according to their religious beliefs.
This law would have forced Bob to create photographs celebrating same-sex weddings or stop his wedding business altogether. The law also prohibited Bob from publicly explaining his religious reasons for only creating artwork consistent with his beliefs on his business’s own website.
But worst of all, the Virginia Values Act threatened Bob with court orders forcing him to create artwork contrary to his faith—in addition to damages, attorney’s fees, and fines up to $50,000 initially and $100,000 per additional violation. Altogether, these penalties could have bankrupted Bob.
Bob serves all people; he just doesn’t use his photography to promote all messages. That’s why, to avoid breaking the law and potentially facing penalities that could bankrupt his business, Bob decided to challenge the Virginia Values Act to ensure he could continue to operate his business consistently with his faith.
Victory for free speech
In June 2023, the U.S. Supreme Court issued 303 Creative v. Elenis, a landmark free-speech ruling. Alliance Defending Freedom attorneys represented graphic artist and website designer Lorie Smith and her design studio. And the case raised similar questions to Bob’s case. In 303 Creative, the Supreme Court reaffirmed the longstanding principle that the First Amendment protects the freedom of artists and all Americans to express messages consistent with their beliefs without the threat of government punishment..
Five months after this ruling, government officials in Virginia agreed to settle Bob’s case. Bob is now free to continue photographing weddings in accordance with his beliefs.
The U.S. Constitution protects every person’s God-given right to free speech. That doesn’t just protect people from the government censoring their speech. It also prevents the government from forcing them to express messages that violate their beliefs. These two rulings affirmed that right.
- April 2020: Then-Gov. Ralph Northam signed the Virginia Values Act into law. The act went into effect in July 2020.
- September 2020: With the help of ADF attorneys, Bob Updegrove challenged Virginia’s law in court.
- January 2021: The first hearing in Bob’s case was held in federal court.
- April 2021: ADF attorneys filed an appeal with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit after a federal district court dismissed Bob’s case.
- November 2023: Following Lorie’s Supreme Court victory in 303 Creative v. Elenis in June, Virginia officials agreed in a settlement that the Constitution protects Bob’s freedom to create wedding photography consistent with his beliefs.