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SCOTUS will not hear Elane Photography discrimination case

SCOTUS will not hear Elane Photography discrimination case

Geoffrey Talmon
April 11, 2014
April 11, 2014

On April 7, 2014, the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) issued its latest weekly order list. Among the cases on the order list that were denied certiorari (i.e. cases that will not be heard by the court) was Elane Photography v. Willock.

For those who are not familiar with the case, Elaine Huguenin (Huguenin), the owner and lead photographer of Elane Photography (Elane), told Vanessa Willock (Willock) that she would not photograph Willock’s wedding to another woman because same-sex marriage violates Huguenin’s religious beliefs.

Willock prevailed on a complaint with the New Mexico Human Rights Commission, which Elane appealed to a New Mexico District Court and ultimately to the New Mexico Supreme Court. The New Mexico Supreme Court upheld the lower court’s ruling, finding that Elane provides a “public accommodation” for the purposes of the New Mexico Human Rights Act and is, therefore, subject to that act’s anti-discrimination provisions.

The court further held that requiring Elane to provide photographic services to Willock was not a violation of the First Amendment’s protection against compelled speech, nor was it a violation of Huguenin’s First Amendment right to the free exercise of religion.

By declining to review Elane’s First Amendment defenses to the suit, the SCOTUS has largely left the issue in the states’ hands.

Here in Idaho, we have seen the issue of discrimination become one of the most hotly contested and discussed issues of the 2014 legislative session. Specifically, the “Add the Words” campaign sought to broaden the anti-discrimination provisions of Idaho law, while others sought to carve out exemptions from anti-discrimination laws for “sincerely held religious beliefs.” It is also likely that similar issues will arise again in the next legislative session.

Because the issue of discrimination ignites the passions of so many people, perhaps it will provide a useful vehicle for debating the proper role of government in the marketplace and for answering some fundamental questions about the how our government views the rights of individuals in Idaho. For examples:

- Should a person be compelled against his or her will to provide a good or service to someone else?
- Should it matter why a person refused to provide a good or service?
- Do people have an affirmative right to the fruits of someone else’s labor, regardless of whether they are members of a protected class?
- Should freedom of contract and freedom of association be afforded the same protections as free exercise of religion?
- Should religious beliefs be granted special exemptions from certain laws while other beliefs are not granted such exemptions?
- With information technology making it easier than ever for people to exert social and economic pressure upon businesses, are there non-governmental, non-coercive means of discouraging discriminatory behavior?

The issue of discrimination is a sensitive one that is fraught with tension and which often makes people uncomfortable. Unfortunately, those who seek to engage in honest debate about the issue often become targets for demagoguery and personal attacks from those with opposing viewpoints.

While those on opposing sides of this issue may never fully come to an agreement, I am still hopeful that an honest, spirited debate can be held that will at least attempt to address some of the questions asked above.

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