Back in February, Arizona got into hot water when it tried to pass a series of laws that, in their words, were designed to protect the religious freedoms of business owners who were totally grossed out by same sex couples. Put simply, it was the contention of Arizona politicians that if a business owner didn't want to serve a gay couple, it was that business owner's right to refuse service. The notion was met almost immediately with passionate opposition from people who called these laws unconscionable and similar to the United States' detestable Jim Crow laws.
Unfortunately, the issue of whether or not same sex couples have the right to receive service from business owners who are opposed to their lifestyle is being debated in more states than one. In New Mexico, it seems the entire controversy has been embodied in one case that reaches back all the way to 2006.
Eight years ago, Vanessa Willock asked Elaine and Jonathan Huguenin, the owners of New Mexico-based Elane Photography, to photograph her impending commitment ceremony. The owners of the boutique refused, saying that such a job would violate their religious beliefs. In response, Willock filed a complaint against the couple, who were brought to trial. As devout Christians, the Huguenin's felt that the First Amendment guaranteed their right to refuse service to same sex couples seeking out their photographic know-how. The state of New Mexico didn't see it that way.
After years of litigation and more than one overturned decision, last August a state Supreme Court in New Mexico ruled that, in fact, the owners of Elane Photography did not have the right to refuse service to anyone they want. Not content with the ruling, the case made its way to the highest court in the land, where the justices of the Supreme Court decided that they just don't want to deal with it. In effect, SCOTUS' decision is a de facto ruling against Elane Photography, who must now serve same sex couples regardless of the owners' personal beliefs.
Jordan Lorence, an attorney for the Alliance Defending Freedom, an Arizona group defending the photography studio, calls the Supreme Court's refusal unjust, saying, "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."
To be honest, the hubbub surrounding this case is mildly befuddling. While my personal opinions leave me thinking that the photographer's actions were both mean and foolhardy, I can't help but think that business owners should have the right to make the choice over who they will and will not serve. It seems like a silly choice to turn away good business for any reason, but shouldn't that silly decision be one business owners are allowed to make for themselves?
Even in the absence of a government mandate to be nice to each other, wouldn't the resulting loss in business eventually force business owners to confront - and perhaps rethink - their choice? Heck, even Chik Fil-A realized they should just shut up about same sex marriage and get back to selling chicken. Is it so unreasonable to assume that change of heart wouldn't be echoed by business owners who suddenly found themselves running short of funds thanks to their personal beliefs?
Even more, are the pros at Elane Photography so incredibly talented that clients simply must use them? Or is it conceivable that Ms. Willock and her partner might have found a similarly gifted photographer across town who could capture their special day without hating them on a personal level? I'm willing to be corrected, here, in case I'm missing some big piece of the puzzle, but it seems as though both Willock's and the Huguenin's time might have been best served by parting ways back in 2006.
Either way, the debate is far from over. This isn't even the last time that the Supreme Court will have to rule on the issue, judging from attorney statements and similar cases currently kicking around at state level.