by Travis Weber, J.D., LL.M.
March 19, 2014
Sometime in the next few weeks, the U.S. Supreme Court is expected to decide whether it will hear the case of Elane Photography v. Willock. The owners of Elane Photography are Christians, and their views and beliefs are reflected in how they run their business. Yet the New Mexico Supreme Court ruled that Elane Photography violated New Mexico’s anti-discrimination law provisions regarding sexual orientation when its owners refused to agree to photograph a same-sex commitment ceremony. Elane Photography’s owners are merely asking the government to not compel them to participate in actions which violate their religious beliefs. Consequently, when the government forces them to participate in the same-sex ceremony by photographing it (with the threat of a fine if they refuse), the government is forcing and compelling Elane’s owners to speak a certain message in violation of the First Amendment.
Even supporters of same-sex marriage see the danger of the government’s position and its use of anti-discrimination law in this case. Writing in the Wall Street Journal, Eugene Volokh (professor at UCLA law school) and Ilya Shapiro (with the Cato Institute) point out that a ruling against Elane Photography here sets a dangerous precedent that allows the government to compel speech in the cause of furthering equality through powerful and broad anti-discrimination laws. The next victim may be someone quite unlike Elane’s owners. It could be “a freelance writer who declines to write a press release for a religious organization with which he disagrees.” According to the New Mexico Supreme Court’s reasoning in Elane Photography, this writer has violated anti-discrimination law because his refusal to write such a press release is discrimination based on religion, just like Elane Photography’s refusal to photograph the commitment ceremony is being viewed by the government as discrimination. Yet a photographer, writer, speaker, publisher, or other artist “must have the First Amendment right to choose which speech he creates, notwithstanding any state law to the contrary.”
As Volokh and Shapiro state, “a couple that is told by a photographer that she does not want to photograph their commitment ceremony may understandably be offended. But avoiding offense is not a valid reason for restricting or compelling speech… . The First Amendment secures an important right to which all speakers are entitled — whether religious or secular, liberal or conservative, pro- or anti-gay-marriage. A commitment to legal equality can’t justify the restriction of that right.”
Elane Photography highlights an important point — individuals with different views regarding the definition of marriage can still agree that free speech must trump “forced equality.” Indeed, the freedom from such “compelled speech” is protected by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. When speech motivated by religious beliefs is forced to pass muster with the government’s censors and Americans are forced to speak a certain message under the threat of fines and force of law, all who love individual liberty and free speech (regardless of personal views) must stand up and pay attention.