Elane Photography loses appeal
June 5th, 2012
A favorite excess of the homosexual lobby – as iterated by those who think that there is such a thing – is the story of Elaine Huguenin and Elane Photography. Four years after this story broke, this is still one of the few examples in which it seems as though laws drafted to protect gays and lesbians from discrimination actually may infringe on the rights of others to live their lives in accordance with their values.
The facts are simple:
Elaine Huguenin and her husband operate Elane Photography. Elaine is the sole photographer. Vanessa Willock sought out Elane’s services to photograph her commitment ceremony to Misty Collinsworth. Huguenin politely responded to let her know that she does not photograph same-sex weddings. On December 20, 2006, Willock filed a charge of discrimination against Elane Photography.
This story troubles me. On the one hand, I do not wish for gay people to be subjected to discrimination or be denied services. On the other, I do appreciate the uniqueness of photography services, a business that places the individual in environments not of their choosing and with levels of intimacy that are not a part of most occupations.
My sympathies in this case evolved to support Elaine Huguenin. It seems to me to be unfair to demand that an individual (and in the case of small businesses like Elane Photography, it is an individual) be forced to provide services at the time, place, and convenience of anyone for any reason. And whether Elaine’s objection is based in race, religion, orientation, or any other personal quirk however benign or ignoble seems irrelevant. At some point, one’s body is one’s own and to insist that one must work for me or not be allowed to work in their field at all is to gallop down a road that leads to some very ugly places.
But the courts have consistently found that Elane Photography violated the law. And on Thursday, the Court of Appeals upheld the ruling.
I think the law is unfair. It should be amended to allow individuals or tiny businesses some autonomy without boards and courts dictating the minutia of hurt feelings and obnoxious entitlement that each feels over the other. The cause of non-discrimination would not be hindered by limiting such laws to employers with more than a few employees.
But for me, perhaps the saddest part of this is that in our Culture War mentality, leaving other people alone is equated with defeat. And forcing others to do or not do as we wish is winning. Although it impacts them not in the slightest, if an anti-gay activist can get a gay person denied a right or service, they “win”. And though Huguenin’s beliefs harmed no one (even Willock was no more harmed than if Huguenin had another same-sex wedding to film on that day), it is a “win” for our community if she is forced to provide a personal service that she doesn’t want to provide.
I wish we could accommodate each other better. I wish we didn’t hate each other so much.
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?
More Facts about Elane Photography
April 14th, 2008
UPDATE: Decision and Final Order [pdf]
Vanessa Willock sent to Elane Photography the following e-mail on September 21, 2006, a year in advance of her ceremony.
We are researching potential photographers for our commitment ceremony on September 15, 2007 in Taos, NM.
This is a same-gender ceremony. If you are open to helping us celebrate our day we’d like to receive pricing information.
Elaine Huguenin responded
As a company, we photograph traditional weddings, engagements, seniors, and several other things such as political photographs and singer’s portfolios.
Willock wrote again
Thanks for your response below of September 21, 2006. I’m a bit confused, however, by the wording of your response. Are you saying that your company does not offer your photography services to same-sex couples?
Huguenin in conclusion
Sorry if our last response was a confusing one. Yes, you are correct in saying we do not photograph same-sex weddings, but again, thanks for checking out our site!
Have a great day.
In November 2006 Willock’s partner, Misty Collinsworth, contacted Huguenin and – without mentioning the sex of the partners – inquired about services. Huguenin responded enthusiastically and sought to follow up.
On December 20, 2006, Willock filed a charge of discrimination against Elane Photography.
The decision included two questions: did discrimination occur based on sexual orientation, and was Elane Photography a public accommodation. The commission found the answer to both questions to be in the affirmative.
Elane’s attorneys argued that Ms. Huguenin’s religious convictions provided exclusion to the New Mexico Human Rights Act. The commission found that questions of the constitutionality of the NMHRA was “not before the New Mexico Human Rights Commission for determination in this proceeding and, accordingly, are not addressed here.
Elane Photography Loses
April 12th, 2008
In February we told you about Elane Photography, a small company in New Mexico that is ran by Elaine Huguenin and her husband. In 2006, a lesbian couple had requested that Elane photograph their commitment ceremony and the Ms. Huguenin refused. Vanessa Willock, one of the couple, filed a complaint with the New Mexico Human Rights Commission.
The Las Cruces Sun-News has the results:
The commission’s one-page ruling Wednesday said Elane Photography violated the state Human Rights Act by discriminating against Willock on the basis of sexual orientation, and should pay $6,637 for Willock’s attorney’s fees and costs.
The commission found that Elane Photography, as a commercial business, provided a public accomodation and could not, under law, discriminate based on sexual orientation.
I have to admit that I’m a bit surprised at the determination and still have unanswered questions about the thinking that went into it. Because the company was primarily one individual I was expecting that the commission would allow for Ms. Huguenin’s religious objections.
I am troubled by the decision and am not certain whether or not I think this is the best conclusion.
On one hand, I recognize the value of the limitations that society has placed on the application of religious beliefs and can see the societal benefits that have resulted from anti-discrimination laws. I would not want a plumber, for example, using religious freedom as an excuse to deny services to a Muslim. And I don’t want to return to the day when a store can refuse service to someone solely because they are black or Jewish or gay.
But, on the other hand, I don’t think we are best served by forcing photographers to participate at same-sex commitment ceremonies and I am not convinced of the wisdom of laws that don’t allow for religious objections. I fear that legislatures that might be considering laws that protect gays and lesbians from discrimination will balk if they believe that individuals will be forced to participate in events that they find immoral or objectionable.
But the story is not yet over.
The Alliance Defense Fund, a Christian organization that defends religious liberty, plans to appeal to state district court.
Photographer Challenged for Denying Services to Lesbian Couple
February 28th, 2008
According to various anti-gay media including the Washington Times, Elaine Huguenin, a photographer in Albuquerque was brought before the New Mexico Human Rights Commission due to her denial of services to a lesbian couple. She is defended by Alliance Defense Fund, an anti-gay legal ministry.
When Elaine Huguenin of Albuquerque, N.M., declined in September 2006 an e-mail request from a lesbian couple to photograph their ceremony, one of the lesbians responded by lodging a human rights complaint with the New Mexico Human Rights Division, the state agency charged with enforcing state anti-discrimination laws and sending cases to the commission to be adjudicated.
Because anti-gay media is notoriously prone to “error”, I am hesitant to assume that the facts are as stated in the Times, LifeSite, or the other propaganda arms of the anti-gay industry.
However, according to Francie D. Cordova, New Mexico Labor Relations Division Director, here are the bare facts of the case:
A Hearing Office conducted an administrative hearing whereby both the photographer and the complaining party were represented by attorneys. What occurred was a due process hearing and not an interrogation. The case was based on a denial of public accommodation. The Commission has not yet considered the case as the hearing officer has not rendered a recommendation.
I am not privy to any behind-the-scenes communication that led to the complaint. So we do not know what was said by Mrs. Huguenin or by Vanessa Willock, the complaintant.
But this case bothers me.
On one hand, I don’t think that denying services to individuals based on characteristics such as race, gender, orientation, or religion are admirable or have any basis in Christian faith (the reason purported to be behind Huguenin’s denial of service). I do believe that gay persons should be protected from discrimination in the public square.
One should not have the privelege – or so I believe – to bar the door of a restaurant, a barber shop, a grocery store, or a lunch counter due to bigotry or bias.
On the other hand, the type of services provided by Elane Photography require the personal services of Elaine Huguenin herself, at a specified time and place, participating in a ceremony that Ms. Huguenin finds offensive. This is not simply providing services to a gay person, among many persons, but rather it is imposing on Huguenin a level of discomfort that seems an autocratic interference in private business rather than a protection of gay citizens.
And I find the story to be a sad reflection on our society.
Elaine’s photography is, to my untrained eye, quite good. I can see why Ms. Willock would select her for the ceremony.
But what troubles me is that Christianity, as a whole, has become so hostile to gay people that it seems reasonable that faith would be given as a reason for not providing services. Would divorce, pre-marital sex, incompatible faith-affiliations, or a lack of religious adherence be any cause for denying service by Elane Photography? I very much doubt it.
And I am also troubled by an attitude that is inflexible of the sensitivities of others. Would it have been so difficult for Ms. Willock to choose someone else and let Huguenin and her biases alone? Does every slight require punishment?
I will be following this story and will report when more is known.