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Supreme Court staying out of photographer's same-sex client case

The U.S. Supreme Court has declined to take up an appeal from a photographer who refused to shoot a same-sex commitment ceremony
The U.S. Supreme Court has declined to take up an appeal from a photographer who refused to shoot a same-sex commitment ceremony.

The court's action leaves a lower court ruling in place, finding that the photographer violated a state anti-discrimination law.

Though the photographer, Elaine Huguenin of Albuquerque, refused to photograph the ceremony on religious grounds, her appeal was based on a claim that her right of free expression as a creative artist allowed her to reject a client if the assignment would compel her to express an idea she opposes.

In September of 2006, Vanessa Willock of Albuquerque called Elane Photography and asked if the business would photograph the commitment ceremony of two women that would include an exchange of vows and rings.

Elaine and her husband, Jonathan, declined, saying that they did not want to take pictures that would express a message about marriage that conflicted with their religious beliefs.

Vanessa Willock sued, and the New Mexico Supreme Court ruled that Elane Photography violated the state's public accommodation law, which bars discrimination and the basis of a number of factors including sexual orientation.

The court said the Huguenins are free to photograph, on their own, whatever they wish, but they cannot discriminate when it comes to the pictures they produce in the ordinary course of business.

"It may be that Elane Photography expresses its clients' messages in its photographs, but only because it is hired to do so," the court said.

The state court's ruling prompted the Arizona legislature to propose a law earlier this year that would give businesses in the state a legal defense if they refused to serve someone for religious reasons. The bill was vetoed by Gov. Jan Brewer.

In urging the U.S. Supreme Court not to take the case, Vanessa Willock's lawyer argued that when a company sells its services to the public, it is not acting privately to express its own message.

"Customers do not pay for the privilege of facilitating the company's message. Customers pay to have their own events memorialized," said Tobias Wolff of the University of Pennsylvania Law School.

— Pete Williams


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