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New Mexico Photographer Found Guilty of Discrimination: Are Churches Next?

October 17, 2017

Alliance Defending Freedom attorneys have appealed to the New Mexico Supreme Court a May 31 decision by a lower court finding a photography company guilty of discrimination for declining to photograph a same-sex commitment ceremony. Furthermore, the court ordered the company to pay almost $6700 in attorneys’ fees to the lesbian who filed the complaint. The ominous implications of this case could affect churches and other religious groups who believe marriage is defined as one man and one woman.

The Cost of Being a Christian
In 2006, Elaine Huguenin, the photographer for Elane Photography Inc., and co-owner of the company with her husband Jon Huguenin, declined a request to help “celebrate” a same-sex commitment ceremony for a woman who inquired via email to the company’s website. The Huguenins are Christians who believe that God designed marriage as one man and one woman, and that defining marriage is the best way for societies to help children and adults. They could not in good conscience allow their company’s photography services to be used to promote the message of the ceremony – that it is a good thing to redefine marriage to include same-sex couples.

Jon and Elaine thought this was the end of the matter until they received papers from the state of New Mexico explaining that a complaint of “sexual orientation” discrimination had been filed against their company.  A few months later, after a one day trial, the New Mexico Human Rights Commission found Elane Photography, Inc., guilty of “sexual orientation” discrimination and ordered the company to pay the attorney’s fees of the woman who filed the complaint.  Elane Photography has appealed the ruling, and both courts that have heard the case have rejected the defense that the U.S. and state constitution’s protections for freedom of speech and free exercise of religion protect Elane Photography from this legal action. Alliance Defending Freedom lawyers have argued that the First Amendment protects business owners from being forced by a customer to endorse a message the company owners do not support.  We have appealed to the New Mexico Supreme Court and will appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court if necessary.

The use of nondiscrimination laws in this manner to punish business owners and those with professional licenses who dissent from the drive to redefine marriage violates their constitutional right to freedom of conscience in the marketplace.  Alliance Defending Freedom has also seen this ominous trend spread to religious groups.  New Jersey officials have allowed a lawsuit to go forward against a Methodist group that owns a beach pavilion for religious meetings in Ocean Grove, New Jersey.  The Methodist group declined to rent its facility to a lesbian couple that wanted to use it for a civil union ceremony.  The Methodist group is currently fighting accusations of discrimination filed with state officials.

What kind of threat does this represent for churches that hold to a Biblical definition of marriage?  Can a church be sued for discrimination like Elane Photography if it declines to allow a same-sex couple to attend the church’s married couples’ retreat? At this time, such a lawsuit might be difficult to sustain against a church because the church is not a business.  However, government officials might take aim at a church’s tax-exempt status in such a situation.

This troubling possibility happened in the Ocean Grove case where New Jersey officials revoked a specific property tax-exemption for the pavilion that they had earlier granted to the nonprofit Methodist group if it used the facility for recreational purposes.  Although this is a different kind of property tax than the one most governmental entities grant to religious groups for their houses of worship, it shows the way officials can punish religious groups that advocate marriage defined as one man and one woman.

Also, if pastors or church personnel are licensed counselors or social workers, there might be discrimination complaints filed with state licensing boards urging them to discipline the licensed professionals for holding the “wrong” views on marriage.  Alliance Defending Freedom has been involved in cases like this involving Julea Ward in Michigan and Don Mendell in Maine.

It is important to persevere and protect the right of conscience.  A Massachusetts veterans’ group that sponsors Boston’s annual St. Patrick’s Day parade lost at every court level when it was sued for declining to include a homosexual activist group in its parade. Victory only happened when it reached the U.S. Supreme Court.  In one of the first cases Alliance Defending Freedom ever helped with in 1995, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously reversed the lower court’s decision and ruled in favor of the veterans’ group’s First Amendment rights not to be forced to advocate a message it disagrees with. We can and do win when we stand and fight for religious freedom.

Churches must be aware of the conflict between religious freedom and the homosexual legal agenda.  If you or any of your church members find themselves the target of a complaint like that experienced by Elane Huguenin,contact Alliance Defending Freedom immediately.