Court refuses to hear case on photography at gay weddings

The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday declined to hear a case exploring whether wedding photographers are allowed to refuse to shoot gay marriage ceremonies. 

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Without comment, the Supreme Court dismissed the appeal of a New Mexico Supreme Court ruling last year that found a wedding photographer violated the state's anti-discrimination law by refusing to photograph a same-sex wedding ceremony there.

In 2007, a New Mexico photography business refused to photograph a wedding ceremony for Vanessa Willock and her partner. The New Mexico Human Rights Commission determined Elane Photography violated a state law that prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation. 

A number of appeals courts have affirmed the initial decision, and the New Mexico Supreme Court in 2013 ruled that the state’s anti-discrimination law — similar to those in a number of other states — requires businesses to serve same-sex couples similar to other couples. The Supreme Court has ruled in favor of similar regulations of the First Amendment to ensure that protected classes of people are not discriminated against, the New Mexico ruling found.  

In appealing to the Supreme Court, lawyers for the studio claimed photography is inherently expressive. First Amendment protections should ensure photographers should not be forced to shoot something with which they disagree, Elane Photography claimed. It made a distinction between photography and other businesses like restaurants and hotels.

The New Mexico Supreme Court disagreed. 

“If Elane Photography took photographs on its own time and sold them at a gallery, or if it was hired by certain clients but did not offer its services to the general public, the law would not apply to Elane Photography’s choice of whom to photograph or not," the ruling stated. 

However, the case involves "photographs that Elane Photography produces for hire in the ordinary course of its business as a public accommodation," according to the New Mexico ruling.

The Human Rights Campaign hailed the decision. 

"The Supreme Court of the United States today has paved the way for robust enforcement of non-discrimination laws,” said Sarah Warbelow, the group's legal director. 

The New Mexico case was brought up by Republicans during debate in the Arizona legislature as evidence for the need for a religious freedom bill that would have allowed business owners to cite their sincerely held religious beliefs in refusing service to gay people, among others. 

The law passed both chambers of the Arizona state legislature earlier this year but was vetoed by Gov. Jan Brewer (R) after the issue sparked national attention and caused a number of high-profile Republicans to speak out against the bill.  

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