Elane Photography Follow-up
This commentary is the opinion of the author and does not necessarily reflect those of other authors at Box Turtle Bulletin
December 19th, 2009
In February 2008, Elane Photography was brought before the New Mexico Human Rights Commission because it refused to photograph the commitment ceremony of Vanessa Willock and her partner. Elane Photography, which consists of Elaine Huguenin and her husband, was found by the commission to have discriminated against Willock on the basis of sexual orientation, and was ordered to pay $6,637 for Willock\’s attorney\’s fees and costs.
Elane appealed. But this week a District Court Judge upheld that decision.
My sympathies are with Elaine Huguenin. I’ve read the correspondence between the two, and I’ve heard her interviewed. Huguenin is not a hater or a Culture Warrior. She’s just some woman who didn’t feel comfortable photographing an event that clashed with her belief system.
Where some might see Elaine, her views, and her opinions as an enemy that must be vanquished, I just see some woman being forced by the government to work where and when she doesn’t want to work. And I find that deeply troubling.
Some may see a distinction between Elaine, the person, and Elane, the business. But as one who works in the business world, I know that the distinction is only one of form and not of function. Bankruptcy law, tort, insurance, and practicality are such that those who offer their services for a living, even sole practitioners, need to have a corporate structure. People like Elaine Huguenin are, for all practical purposes, indistinguishable from their business and any restrictions placed on their company serve only as restrictions on them individually.
Most readers know that I am not wedded to non-discrimination policies to begin with. While I recognize that they were a valuable tool at breaking through institutionalized bigotries, especially racial bigotries, I am sympathetic to the notion that racists, homophobes, xenophobes, and bigots of all stripes have a right to their own beliefs, however abhorrent I may find them to be. And while I insist that any non-discrimination policies must include my community if they include any affected communities, I wonder if social pressure could not at this time play a stronger and more principled role than governmental coercion.
But whether or not you believe that non-discrimination policies should be in place, surely you’ll agree that this was never what we intended?
Americans cherish individuality above almost all else. And gay people know more than anyone that coercion to conform to the expectations of government is by its nature oppressive and prone to abuse. Surely it has never been our desire to force those who don’t like us to perform like puppets on a string?
The court has spoken. The law was broken. Elane Photography is not entitled to refuse to photograph same-sex commitment ceremonies.
And that is a tragedy.
I believe it is time for New Mexico to change its law. A decent and reasonable compromise would be to follow the lead of
many other states – and, indeed, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 – the exceptions for for employment and limit the non-discrimination requirements to businesses with 15 or more employees.
Let Elane Photography limit its services to only heterosexual weddings, or only Catholic Weddings, or only weddings between persons of the same race. This is no hardship on us. Elaine Huguenin is not solely responsible for our happiness. Even in Albuquerque there are plenty of other choices.
And ultimately what kind of freedom will we have won to live our lives as we see best if it costs the freedom of others to do the same?