This Photographer Is Making It Clear: Censorship Is Not a Virginia Value
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 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 Governor Ralph Northam signed the so-called Virginia Values Act into law. Among other negative consequences, this law threatens artists who hold different beliefs than the government’s preferred views with censorship, fines, and even closure of their businesses.
Thankfully, one photographer is taking a stand and challenging this law. Let’s take a look at the details of his case.
Who is Bob Updegrove?
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 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 new law in Virginia, where Bob lives, will force him to do. That’s why Bob is taking a stand and challenging this unconstitutional law in court.
Updegrove v. Miyares (formerly Updegrove v. Herring)
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 help people who identify as LGBT, in reality they’re much more complex than that—and much more dangerous.
SOGI laws threaten individuals, business owners, and nonprofit organizations that want to live and operate according to their religious beliefs.
And the Virginia Values Act is no different.
This law would force Bob Updegrove to create photographs celebrating same-sex weddings or stop his wedding business altogether. The law also forbids 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 threatens 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 easily bankrupt Bob.
Bob serves all people; he just doesn’t use his photography to promote all messages. That’s why, to avoid losing his business and facing possible bankruptcy, Bob decided to challenge the Virginia Values Act to ensure he could continue to operate his business consistently with his faith.
What's at stake?
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 speak messages that go against their deepest beliefs.
Not only that, but the Constitution and the Supreme Court have made it clear—as recently as four years ago in the Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission decision—that the government cannot treat some people worse than others based on religion. But that’s exactly what’s happening in Virginia. Artists like Bob Updegrove whose beliefs about marriage differ from the government’s are being threatened with punishment.
- April 2020: The Virginia Values Act was signed into law by Governor Northam. It went into effect in July 2020.
- September 2020: With the help of Alliance Defending Freedom 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 Fourth Circuit after a federal district court dismissed Bob’s case.
The bottom line
Artists should be free to choose the messages they promote.
ADF team members contributed to the writing and publication of this article.