By Matt Dunning, Crain News Service
CHICAGO (Aug. 26, 2013) — Religious objections to same-sex marriage do not give businesses in New Mexico the right to refuse services to gay and lesbian couples, the state's Supreme Court has ruled.
In September 2006, Vanessa Willock and her partner, Misti Collinsworth, attempted to hire Albuquerque N.M.-based Elane Photography L.L.C. to photograph their commitment ceremony. However, co-owner Elaine Huguenin told them the company was available only for "traditional weddings," and specifically did not photograph same-sex weddings, according to court documents.
Ms. Willock filed a complaint against Elane Photography with the New Mexico Human Rights Commission later that year, alleging that the company's refusal to work with same-sex couples violated the New Mexico Human Rights Act, which includes protections against discrimination based on sexual orientation.
The commission agreed and awarded Ms. Willock $6,637 to cover her legal costs.
During the hearing as well as subsequent appeals in Bernalillo County, N.M., and the state Court of Appeals, Ms. Huguenin argued that she had not discriminated against Ms. Willock and Ms. Hollinsworth on the basis of their sexual orientation, but rather that photographing same-sex ceremonies contradicted her beliefs as a devout Christian.
She contented that the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, plus the U.S. and New Mexico Religious Freedom Restoration Acts, guaranteed her rights to freely exercise her religious beliefs in the course of doing business, and that those laws superseded her obligations under the state's Human Rights Act.
'The price of citizenship'
On Aug. 22, however, the New Mexico Supreme Court unanimously upheld the lower courts' previous rejections of Ms. Huguenin's appeals, finding that the company's refusal to photograph same-sex weddings while providing that same service to heterosexual couples constituted discrimination based on Ms. Willock's sexual orientation, irrespective of the company's underlying motivations for that policy.
Further, the court concluded that adhering to the state's Human Rights Act does not violate Ms. Huguenin's rights to freely express her religious beliefs as the company's owner, primarily because the state and federal religious freedom laws do not apply to disputes between private parties.
"At its heart, this case teaches that at some point in our lives all of us must compromise, if only a little, to accommodate the contrasting values of others," Judge Richard Bosson wrote in his concurring opinion. "The Huguenins have to channel their conduct, not their beliefs, so as to leave space for other Americans who believe something different. That 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. In short, I would say to the Huguenins, with the utmost respect: It is the price of citizenship."
Appeal to U.S. Supreme Court considered
In a statement Aug. 22, the Scottsdale, Ariz.-based conservative legal group Alliance Defending Freedom, which represented Elane Photography in the case, said it was considering whether to appeal the decision to the U.S. Supreme Court.
"The idea that free people can be 'compelled by law to compromise the very religious beliefs that inspire their lives' as the 'price of citizenship' is a chilling and unprecedented attack on freedom," Jordan Lorence, senior counsel for the group, said in the statement. "Americans are now on notice that the price of doing business is their freedom."
New Mexico is one of only 19 states and the District of Columbia that broadly prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation in matters of employment, commerce and public accommodation.
Although the federal Civil Rights Act similarly outlaws discrimination based on race, nationality, gender and religion, the law currently provides no protection from discrimination on the basis of a person's sexual orientation or perceived sexual orientation.
This report appeared in Business Insurance magazine, a Chicago-based sister publication of Tire Business.