(CN) – A Christian-owned photography studio violated anti-discrimination laws by refusing to take pictures for a gay couple’s commitment ceremony, the New Mexico Court of Appeals ruled.
Vanessa Willock complained to the New Mexico Human Rights Commission in 2006 after Elane Photography refused to photograph her upcoming commitment ceremony with a same-sex partner.
“Elane Photography’s owners are Christians who believe that marriage is a sacred union of one man and one woman,” the opinion states. “They also believe that photography is an artistically expressive form of communication and photographing a same-sex commitment ceremony would disobey God and the teachings of the Bible by communicating a message contrary to their religious and personal beliefs.”
Willock said she asked the studio if it could photograph her upcoming “same-gender ceremony,” but that the company responded that it does “not photograph same-sex weddings.”
Head photographer Elaine Huguenin owns the studio with her husband Jonathan.
When Willock’s partner sent Elane an email the next day without disclosing her sexual orientation, she received a response with pricing information and an offer to meet.
The commission ultimately found that this conduct violated state anti-discrimination laws and that Elane owed Willock more than $6,600 in attorneys’ fees. Willock did not seek monetary damages.
A judge with Bernalillo County District Court rejected Elane’s appeal, leading the studio to take its case to the Court of Appeals.
Elane Photography had argued that the First Amendment and New Mexico’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act empowered it to refuse service.
But a three-judge panel found last week that the studio is a “public accommodation” that cannot refuse customers based on their sexual orientation.
The New Mexico Human Rights Act expansively defines a public accommodation as any establishment that provides or offers its services, facilities, accommodations or goods to the public, according to the court.
Elane failed to show a distinction from unique and artistic services, such as those it offers.
“Elane Photography avoids addressing the critical factor that a photography business does offer its goods or services to the general public as part of modern commercial activity,” Judge Timothy Garcia wrote for the court. “In response, Willock specifically emphasizes the numerous jurisdictions that have adopted a broad definition of ‘public accommodation’ and have included businesses ‘providing services to the general public,’ and have not recognized a special exception for nonessential, artistic or discretionary businesses.”
The studio claimed that it did not discriminate, but that its policy and the beliefs of its owners prevent it from photographing a marriage that defines it as anything other than between a man and a woman.
Garcia countered, however, that the studio showcased its discriminatory policy in its separate emails with Willock and her partner.
Elane also misapplied the meaning of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, according to the panel, which noted that it is clearly limited in scope to when a government agency has restricted a person’s freedom of religion.
“Willock is not included in the definition of a ‘government agency’ under the NMRFRA, and this statute was not meant to apply in suits between private litigants,” Garcia wrote.
Though the 2nd Circuit held in 2006 that the federal version of the statute applied to a suit between two private parties, the judges said they “could not find a single court holding that supported its novel application.”
In a separate concurring opinion, Judge James Wechsler also addressed the difference between New Mexico and federal human rights laws.
Though the state law may provide broader protection, Wechsler disagreed that it would have violated Elane’s rights to make it attend Willock’s ceremony.
“The nub of Elaine’s religious freedom argument is not that she was compelled to attend a place of worship or even a religious ceremony,” Wechsler wrote. “Nothing in the facts indicates that when Elane Photography declined the job Elaine knew that there was any religious aspect to the ceremony she was asked to attend.”