(CNSNews.com) - The New Mexico Human Rights Commission ruled on Wednesday that an evangelical Christian photographer discriminated against a lesbian couple by refusing a job to photograph the couple's same-sex commitment ceremony. Religious rights attorneys plan to appeal.
The commission ordered Elaine and Jon Huenins, owners of Elane Photography in Albuquerque, N.M., to pay the lesbian couple $6,600 in attorney fees.
"It is just a stunning disregard for the First Amendment," said Jordan Lorence, a senior legal counsel for the Scottsdale, Ariz.-based Alliance Defense Fund, which is representing the photographer couple in court.
"W e will appeal this ruling to state district court," Lorence told Cybercast News Service.
Carrie Moritomo, public information officer for the New Mexico Department of Workforce Solutions, said the complaint was brought in 2006 by Vanessa Willock, a civil rights officer at the University of New Mexico.
Willock and her partner, Misty Collingsworth, contacted Huenins, a wedding photographer, while making plans for their 2007 commitment ceremony in Taos.
"(Willock) had requested via e-mail for Elane Photography to conduct photography for her commitment ceremony, and the owner of Elane Photography responded that she would not perform that photography session because it was a same-sex commitment ceremony," Moritomo told Cybercast News Service.
No punitive monetary damages were awarded because Willock did not seek damages, Moritomo added.
Lorence said the Huenins, who are fervent evangelicals, politely declined the request because they did not want to use their art to disparage traditional heterosexual marriage. That should have been the end of the matter, he said.
"The Constitution prohibits the state from forcing unwilling people to promote a message they disagree with and thereby violate their conscience," Lorence said. "Christians should not be penalized for abiding by their beliefs.""
UCLA Law School professor Eugene Volokh told Cybercast News Service the decision is troubling.
Apart from the religious rights argument, he said, the decision violates the First Amendment free speech rights of artists to create.
"Just as a freelance writer couldn't be required to write copy for a pro-Scientology Web site or a pro-same-sex marriage Web site, we would recognize that that would be compelling him to speak -- and compelling him to compose words that he does not believe in," Volokh said. "A photographer ought not be required to produce artistic works that she finds ideologically repugnant."
The nationally known constitutional scholar pointed out that under New Mexico antidiscrimination law, religious objectors -- in most situations - are protected from state interference with their religious rights.
"The law says that only when there is a 'compelling government interest' and applying the law is essential, only then can the government compel someone to violate their religious beliefs," Volokh said.
The fact that New Mexico does not recognize same-sex marriage makes it hard to argue that government has a compelling interest in protecting same-sex commitment, he added.
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