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A Unanimous Decision for Equality

Louise Melling,
Deputy Legal Director and Director of Ruth Bader Ginsburg Center for Liberty,
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August 22, 2013

When a business opens its doors to the public it must comply with anti-discrimination laws, even if doing so offends a business owner’s religious beliefs. That’s the bottom line in today’s unanimous decision by the New Mexico Supreme Court holding that a photography business cannot discriminate against a same-sex couple by refusing, because of the owner’s faith, to photograph the couple’s commitment ceremony.

In 2006, Vanessa Willock attempted to hire Elane Photography in Albuquerque, NM, to photograph a commitment ceremony that she and her partner were planning. Elaine Huguenin, co-owner of Elane Photography, turned Willock away, refusing to provide services, claiming that doing so would violate her Christian beliefs.

Today’s opinion recognizes the sincerity of those beliefs, but makes clear that no one’s religious beliefs make it okay to break the law by discriminating against others. In a concurring opinion, Justice Bosson writes:

The Huguenins are free to think, to say, to believe, as they wish; they may pray to the God of their choice and follow those commandments in their personal lives wherever they lead. The Constitution protects the Huguenins in that respect and much more. But there is a price, one that we all have to pay somewhere in our civic life.

In the smaller, more focused world of the marketplace, of commerce, of public accommodation, the Huguenins have to channel their conduct, not their beliefs, so as to leave space for other Americans who believe something different. That compromise is part of the glue that holds us together as a nation, the tolerance that lubricates the varied moving parts of us as a people. The sense of respect we owe others, whether or not we believe as they do, illuminates this country, setting it apart from the discord that afflicts much of the rest of the world.

We couldn’t have said it better.

Unfortunately, this case is part of a cluster of cases across the country: a florist in Washington State, a cake maker in Colorado, an inn in Illinois, among others. In each, a business owner claims a religious objection to serving a same-sex couple; in each, these businesses are violating long-standing anti-discrimination laws designed to protect us in the marketplace. Local businesses play a vital role in our economy and in our communities; that’s why it is so important that they follow the law by serving customers and not judging them because of who they are. No one should have to face the humiliation of being turned away because of their sexual orientation, race, gender, or disability. As the court held, “[W]hen Elane Photography refused to photograph a same-sex commitment ceremony, it violated [state law] in the same way as if it had refused to photograph a wedding between people of different races.” We are hopeful that today’s unanimous decision can help put an end to this type of discrimination in the marketplace and move us closer to a nation that respects and honors everyone’s humanity.

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