A New Mexico Court of Appeals has ruled that a photo studio’s refusal to photograph a commitment ceremony violated the New Mexico Human Rights Act. The court rejected the Albuquerque studio’s argument that photographing the ceremony would cause it to disobey God and the Bible. It is the third time that the studio has lost this case.
Willock first contacted photographer Elaine Huguenin of Elane Photography in fall 2006 about taking pictures of a “same-gender ceremony” and was informed the studio only handled “traditional weddings.” When her partner contacted the studio without revealing her sexual orientation, the studio responded with a price list and sent a follow-up email.
According to Tobias Barrington Wolff, the Pennsylvania law professor who represented Willock in the appeal, this is an opinion following a national trend. He stated “I really think what’s most important about this case is that it is the first time (New Mexico) appellate courts have talked about scope of the statute in a really comprehensive way.”
The Alliance Defense Fund represented Huguenin. It has refused comment on this case’s outcome.
The New Mexico Human Rights Commission and District Judge Alan Malott have both concluded that the studio violated the law. Malott found that the studio qualifies as a public accommodation, that being an establishment that provides a service to the public, and thus it cannot refuse to serve anyone based on “race, religion, color, national origin, ancestry, sex or sexual orientation, gender identity, or physical or mental handicap.”
Elane Photography claimed that it is “provider of discretionary, unique and expressive services, it was not a public accommodation within the meaning of the act.” Judge Tim Garcia wrote for the court that a 1981 state Supreme Court ruling made it clear that public accommodations include photography studios. Garcia also wrote that the earlier ruling “signaled that this court should independently evaluate the applicability of the NMHRA in all future cases.”
Willock’s side argued that the act’s language extended protections beyond goods and services and that it includes “commercial activity beyond the 19th century paradigm of inn, restaurant or public carrier.” Garcia agreed writing “cases addressing public accommodations statutes with similarly broad language support a national trend that has expanded the traditional definition of business activity that constitutes a ‘public accommodation.’ ”
Elane Photography did make what was probably one of the worse arguments possible. They argued that the law could thus be used to force a Black photographer to be required to photograph a Ku Klux Klan rally. The court noted that “The Ku Klux Klan is not a protected class. Sexual orientation, however, is protected.”
Judge Garcia was joined by Judge Cynthia Fry in writing the opinion for the court. Judge James Wechsler wrote a concurring opinion in which he rejected the claim that photographing the ceremony would have violated Elane Photography’s religious freedom rights. He noted that the facts of the case did not make it clear if the studio actually knew if there was any religious aspect to the ceremony.