Here's What Happened When Antigay Photographers Took Their Case to the Supreme Court

The high court refused to hear an appeal from the couple who refused to take pictures of a gay commitment ceremony.

The exterior of the U.S. Supreme Court is seen in Washington D.C. (Photo: Gary Cameron/Getty Images)

Apr 8, 2014· 2 MIN READ
Hayley Fox is a regular contributor to TakePart who has covered breaking news and the occasional animal story for public radio station KPCC in Los Angeles.

With gay marriage legal in 17 states, same-sex couples face a new series of court battles as business owners across the country attempt to invoke “religious freedom” as a basis for discrimination.

Which is why advocates are cheering the latest victory—albeit a muted one: The U.S. Supreme Court decided Monday not to review the appeal in a highly publicized case of a New Mexico photography studio that refused service to gay customers.

The owners of Elane Photography, Elaine and Jonathan Huguenin, refused to shoot a gay commitment ceremony in 2006 because it clashed with their beliefs. They said their decision was protected under religious freedom laws and the First Amendment and claimed that taking photos is expressive and a form of free speech.

But New Mexico’s Human Rights Commission and the state’s supreme court disagreed. Elane Photography, artistic business or not, is still subject to the regulations and antidiscrimination laws of any commercial business. The Supreme Court's refusal to hear the appeal upholds that finding.

It's hardly the first time religious freedom has been used as a defense for discrimination, said Ross Murray, director of news at GLAAD. What was once invoked to support anti-integration efforts is being used years later to “put up impediments and barriers” for lesbians and gays, he said.

“It’s not just trying to exploit the lack of protections for someone but actually sort of trying to carve out a new loophole,” said Murray.

Antigay groups fear they can’t “stop the tide of marriage equality,” so they’re proposing state legislation and filing lawsuits. Just last week in Mississippi, Gov. Phil Bryant approved a measure that allows residents to sue the government over laws that hinder their ability to practice their religion—making the state one of 18 with such "religious freedom" laws.

In a brief statement that made no mention of the controversy, Bryant said the law would "protect the individual religious freedom of Mississippians of all faiths from government interference."

But advocates fear laws like Mississippi’s could open the door for unabashed discrimination against gays and lesbians. This was a concern in Arizona earlier this year, when the state legislature passed a bill that would have allowed business owners to cite their religious beliefs as reason to refuse service to gay customers. Protests spread, and conservative Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer vetoed what many called an antigay bill.

"Discrimination has no place in Arizona, or anywhere else," said Alessandra Soler, executive director of the ACLU of Arizona. "We're grateful that the governor has stopped this disgraceful law from taking effect."

In addition to state legislation, court cases across the country have been setting precedents for where religious freedom ends and discrimination begins. In December, Colorado baker Jack Phillips was ordered to “cease and desist from discriminating” against gay couples after he refused to make a wedding cake for two men. Last year in Washington, a florist was sued after she said she could not provide wedding arrangements for a gay couple because of her “relationship with Jesus Christ.”

This year, Oregon’s Protect Religious Freedom Initiative could land on the fall ballot. According to a statement from the Oregon Family Council, the initiative was filed “in order to safeguard religious freedom in Oregon and to allow conscientious objectors or persons with deeply held religious beliefs to decline to participate in same-sex ceremonies.”

“That means it's gong to play out in terms of a campaign instead of a legislation process,” said Murray.

Many “religious freedom” lawsuits revolve around the refusal of wedding services. But they indicate a dangerous trend, said Murray, one that could affect individuals’ ability to live and do business in their own town.

First it’s flowers and wedding cakes, he warns, but if someone can cite religion as a reason to refuse service, next it could be groceries or gas or other everyday needs.