Why a Corporation Got a Religious Exemption, But a Photographer Didn’t
After the Supreme Court issued its ruling in the Hobby Lobby case, granting a corporation an exemption to a federal law on the grounds that the law “burdens the exercise of religion” of the company’s owners, we wondered: Why did the Supreme Court grant a religions exemption to a corporation, but decline to give a hearing to a New Mexico wedding photographer who refused to photograph a same-sex wedding for religious reasons?
In 2006, Elane Photography of Albuquerque declined to photograph a same-sex wedding ceremony because of owner Elaine Huguenin’s religious objections. Elane Photography was found in violation of New Mexico’s anti-discrimination law, which explicitly bars discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. Elane Photography was ordered to pay more than $6,000 in attorneys fees and costs to Vanessa Willock, who filed the discrimination complaint.
After exhausting her appeals in New Mexico state courts, Huguenin tried to appeal her case to the US Supreme Court, which declined without explanation in April to hear her case. Two months later, on June 30, the Supreme Court ruled that Hobby Lobby was exempt from a requirement under the Affordable Healthcare Act to provide employee health insurance coverage for certain types of contraceptives because the requirement “substantially burdened” the company owners’ exercise of religion.
Did Hobby Lobby simply make a better legal argument for a religious exemption than Elaine Huguenin did? Could some other wedding photographer now win an exemption from photographing same-sex weddings for religious reasons by arguing that if Hobby Lobby got a religious exemption, then it’s only fair that a small business owner should get one, too?
It turns out that the cases are quite different. Hobby Lobby, a federal case, would have been no help to Elaine Huguenin, who broke a state law. Photographers opposed to shooting same-sex weddings, but who are subject to anti-discrimination laws, can’t invoke the Hobby Lobby decision to make religious freedom arguments, at least not in cases involving state laws.
“The Hobby Lobby [decision] doesn’t apply to state laws,” says Andrew Koppelman, a law professor at Northwestern University who has analyzed the Elane Photography case. He also emphasizes that the Hobby Lobby decision didn’t address an issue of constitutional law, which would trump state law. “Hobby Lobby was an interpretation of [federal] statute and it only modifies other federal statutes. It doesn’t modify state statutes.”
The court reached the Hobby Lobby decision on the grounds of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA). That law, passed in 1993, prohibits the federal government from taking any action that substantially burdens the exercise of religion–unless the action is the least restrictive means of serving a compelling government interest. The Supreme Court said there were less burdensome ways to provide the disputed insurance coverage to Hobby Lobby employees than to make Hobby Lobby provide it against the owners’ religious beliefs.
In the decision on the final Elane Photography v. Willock appeal, handed down last August, the New Mexico state supreme court upheld lower state court rulings against Elane Photography for discrimination. The court rejected Huguenin’s religious freedom and free speech arguments.
She had argued that under the New Mexico Religious Freedom Restoration Act (NMRFRA)–the state’s version of the federal law–her religious beliefs should be accommodated. But New Mexico’s high court ruled that the NMRFRA doesn’t apply to private disputes; a government entity has to be a party to the dispute, and that wasn’t the case in Elane Photography v. Willock.
Moreover, the court said, the wording of the NMRFRA bars state government agencies from restricting a person’s free exercise of religion; it doesn’t bar the New Mexico legislature from passing generally applicable laws, as long as they don’t directly discriminate against religion. For instance, a law that applies to everyone, but doesn’t interfere with the exercise of religion, is legal under New Mexico state law, even if some people have religious objections to the law.
Koppelman wrote in his analysis of the Elane Photography case, “After the loss in New Mexico…there was no hope of bringing the religious liberty claim to the Supreme Court. Huguenin lost her case under a [state] law that did not target religion, and the [US Supreme] Court has held that the Free Exercise clause does not create an exemption from neutral laws of general applicability.”
In other words, Huguenin couldn’t appeal to the US Supreme Court on the grounds that her constitutional rights of Free Exercise had been violated by the New Mexico anti-discrimination law; the state law passed muster according to an earlier Supreme Court ruling (Employment Div. v. Smith, 1990).
In response to that 1990 ruling, politicians of all stripes were outraged, so Congress passed the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act [RFRA] to restore protections of individual religious freedom from infringement by other federal laws. But even if Hobby Lobby had successfully invoked the RFRA before New Mexico courts found Huguenin in violation of state anti-discrimination laws, the Hobby Lobby decision wouldn’t have helped Huguenin because the RFRA has no effect on state laws.
In addition to rejecting Huguenin’s religious freedom claims, the New Mexico supreme court also rejected her free speech claims. The state supreme court said, “The United States Supreme Court has made it clear that the First Amendment permits [anti-discrimination] regulation by states,” and that the New Mexico anti-discrimination law didn’t deprive Huguenin of her rights to free speech.
Huguenin tried to appeal to the US Supreme Court on Free Speech grounds, not Free Exercise grounds, but the Supreme Court declined without explanation to hear her case. Koppelman asserted in his article that the court rightly rejected the case because the New Mexico anti-discrimination law is “not a serious burden on free speech.”
It’s worth pointing out that the Elane Photography v. Willock decision applies only in New Mexico. Wedding photographers in about 30 other US states can refuse to photograph same-sex weddings for whatever reason–religious or otherwise–without consequence. That’s because federal law doesn’t bar providers of goods and services from discriminating on the basis of sexual orientation, and those 30 or so states also have no laws barring such discrimination. New Mexico just happens to be one of the 20 or so states where discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation is now illegal.
US Supreme Court Declines New Mexico Wedding Photographer’s Discrimination Case
Photographer Who Refused to Shoot Same Sex Wedding Loses Another Appeal
NM Wedding Photogs Can’t Discriminate Against Same-Sex Couples, Court Confirms
Photographer Loses Bid to Refuse Same Sex Wedding Jobs (PDN subscription required)