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This Photographer Is Making It Clear: Censorship Is Not a Virginia Value

By Maureen Collins posted on:
March 29, 2021

Many of the ideas that make our Constitution unique were born in the state of 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, the Governor of Virginia 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 business.

Thankfully, one photographer is taking a stand and challenging this law. Let’s take a look at the details of his case.

Who: 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 a photography studio, Bob Updegrove Photography, Bob creates beautiful photographs for events of all kinds—he captures photographs for churches, schools, businesses, conferences, families and special events. He even does wedding photographs for some of the 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.

Bob shouldn’t have to choose between going against his beliefs and his job. And 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.

What: 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 non-profit 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 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 law threatens Bob with court orders forcing him to create artwork contrary to his faith, 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 Virginia’s SOGI law to ensure he could continue to operate his business consistently with his faith.

When: September 2020 to Present

The Virginia Values Act was signed into law by Governor Ralph Northam on April 11 and went into effect on July 1, 2020.

Bob knew that this law would threaten his business and possibly send him into financial ruin. So, on September 28, with the help of Alliance Defending Freedom attorneys, Bob challenged Virginia’s law in court. On January 15, 2021, the first hearing in Bob’s case was held in federal court.

Where: Virginia

Bob is based in the state of Virginia, home to seven of our nation’s Founding Fathers.

Why: To protect artists’ First Amendment rights

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 two years ago in the Masterpiece Cakeshop 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 whose beliefs about marriage differ from the government’s are being threatened with punishment.

The Bottom Line

Artists should be free to choose the messages they promote.

Virginians like George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison helped shape our country into the freest nation in the world. In that sense, free speech, as protected by the Constitution, is truly a “Virginia value.” And the censorship and compelled speech found in the Virginia Values Act of 2020 are not.

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Maureen Collins

Maureen Collins

Web Writer

Maureen has a passion for writing and her work has appeared on The Federalist.

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