The U.S. Supreme Court rejected an appeal Monday from a photography studio that refused to take pictures of a lesbian couple's commitment ceremony, letting stand a New Mexico high court ruling that helped spur a national debate over gay rights and religious freedom.
The justices left in place a unanimous state Supreme Court ruling last year that said the studio, Elane Photography, violated New Mexico's Human Rights Act by refusing to photograph the women's ceremony "in the same way as if it had refused to photograph a wedding between people of different races."
The Albuquerque-based company said its free-speech rights under the First Amendment should be a valid basis for overturning the state's finding that the studio violated the New Mexico Human Rights Act. The law, similar to laws in 20 other U.S. states, bans discrimination based on sexual orientation.
The company's owners, Elaine and Jonathan Huguenin, are Christians who oppose gay marriage. Because taking photographs can be seen as a form of speech, the First Amendment protects them from being required to "express messages that conflict with their religious beliefs," their attorneys said in court papers. Elane Photography has declined requests to take nude maternity pictures and images depicting violence, its lawyers said.
The dispute arose in 2006 when Vanessa Willock asked the company if it would photograph the commitment ceremony for her and her partner, Misti Collinsworth. When the studio declined, Willock filed a successful complaint with the New Mexico Human Rights Commission.
Willock and Collinsworth had their commitment ceremony in 2007, using a different photographer.
Elane Photography appealed the commission's decision, raising objections under both the First Amendment and a state law protecting religious freedom. The New Mexico Supreme Court ruled for the state in an August 2013 decision. The company's Supreme Court appeal was limited to the First Amendment question.
An Arizona-based group, Alliance Defending Freedom, defended the studio.
"Only unjust laws separate what people say from what they believe," said Alliance Defending Freedom's senior counsel, Jordan Lorence. "The First Amendment protects our freedom to speak or not speak on any issue without fear of punishment. We had hoped the U.S. Supreme Court would use this case to affirm this basic constitutional principle. However, the court will likely have several more opportunities to do just that in other cases of ours that are working their way through the court system."
The group said it is also representing parties in similar cases, such as a Washington state florist and a Colorado cake artist who refused to do work for same-sex couples and a Kentucky T-shirt printer who declined to make shirts promoting a gay pride festival.
But Tobias Barrington Wolff, a University of Pennsylvania law professor representing the New Mexico couple, said "no court in the United States has ever found that a business selling commercial services to the general public has a First Amendment right to turn away customers on a discriminatory basis.
"The New Mexico Supreme Court applied settled law when it rejected the company's argument in this case, and the Supreme Court of the United States was correct to deny certiorari review. The time had come for this case to be over, and we are very happy with the result."
Attitudes toward gay relationships have changed rapidly in the United States in recent years. New Mexico is one of 17 U.S. jurisdictions where gay marriage is legal.
Recent court and legislative decisions making same-sex marriage legal have gained momentum since the Supreme Court's rulings in two cases last summer, one striking down a key part of the federal Defense of Marriage Act and another reinstating gay marriage in California.
In February, Arizona's Republican Gov. Jan Brewer vetoed a bill viewed by critics as a license to discriminate against gays and lesbians in the name of religion. The law, heavily criticized by LGBT advocates and the business community, would have allowed business owners to cite their religious beliefs as justification for refusing to serve same-sex couples or any other prospective customers.
Similar religious-belief legislation has been introduced elsewhere around the country. Eight states — Alabama, Arizona, Kansas, Michigan, Montana, Oklahoma, South Carolina and Virginia — had asked the high court to hear the New Mexico case so lawmakers would have guidance in considering such measures.