Supreme Court draws line on anti-gay case

Sidewalks are filled with the rainbow flags as revelers celebrate Gay Pride in New York.
Sidewalks are filled with the rainbow flags as revelers celebrate Gay Pride in New York.

The Supreme Court has declined to hear an appeal from a New Mexico photographer who refused to photograph a same-sex commitment ceremony because of her religious beliefs, which the state supreme court found violated New Mexico's anti-discrimination law. 

If the Supreme Court had taken the case, "all of public accommodations anti-discrimination laws would have been up for grabs," said Joshua Block of the American Civil Liberties Union. "Drawing the line here is a huge victory."

In 2006, Elaine and Jonathan Huguenin, co-owners of Elane Photography, refused a request from Vanessa Willock who was seeking a photographer to document her commitment ceremony to her same-sex partner. New Mexico's supreme court ruled that the Huguenins's refusal violated the state's anti-discrimination law. The incident was one of several that sparked a push by conservative legislators across the country to alter or pass state-level "religious freedom" legislation that would explicitly allow business owners to use religion as a defense in court if sued by a private party. Gay and lesbian rights supporters charged that state legislators were seeking to enshrine into state law the right of business owners to refuse gay and lesbian customers in the name of religion. New Mexico, unlike many of the states considering such bills, bars discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. 

The Elane Photography case was distinct in that the Huguenins's attorneys were making the argument that serving a same-sex couple would violate her First Amendment right to free expression, photography being an artistic pursuit and not simply a service. Last September, Jordan Lorence of the Alliance Defending Freedom, a conservative advocacy group representing Huguenin, told msnbc that "the government cannot force people to communicate messages they don’t agree with.”

Gay and lesbian rights supporters feared that if the Supreme Court had taken the case and sided with the Huguenins, anti-discrimination laws of all kinds would have been vulnerable, allowing for-profit business serving the general to turn away customers not just based on sexual orientation, but race or gender as well. The Huguenins can communicate their disapproval of same-sex marriage, including to their customers, critics argued, but they can't simply turn away potential clients in defiance of state anti-discrimination law. 

It only takes four Justices to agree to take a case. Gay and lesbian rights supporters are relieved that not only were there not four Justices who wanted to address the issue, but that none of them publicly dissented from the decision not to take the case. 

"The fact that no Justice did that is [also] a huge victory," said Block. "The denial is an indication that the court isn't bothered by people operating commercial enterprises having to comply with local anti-discrimination laws."