ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — As a Christian, Elaine Huguenin is against efforts to legitimize same-sex “marriage.”
So, when the Albuquerque photographer was asked via e-mail in September 2006 to photograph a “commitment ceremony” for two women, Huguenin declined. That was the end of the matter, she thought.
But Huguenin didn’t take into account New Mexico’s anti-discrimination laws. Instead of hiring another photographer, one of the lesbians, Vanessa Willock, filed a civil complaint against Huguenin’s company, Elane Photography.
Now, in one of the first cases of its kind in the state, a three-member tribunal of New Mexico’s Human Rights Commission is considering the complaint brought forward by New Mexico’s Human Rights Bureau, operated by the Labor Relations Division of the state’s Department of Workforce Solutions.
The tribunal will decide whether Huguenin should pay actual and punitive damages to Willock because of her decision not to take pictures of the homosexual ceremony.
Established in 1969 by the New Mexico Legislature to enforce state law preventing discrimination based on race and gender in employment, housing and public accommodation, the human rights commission is taking its first steps to incorporate a 2006 expansion of the act to include “sexual orientation” and “gender identity.”
“It warps the whole concept of discrimination to an absurd extreme,” said Jordan Lorence, senior council for the Alliance Defense Fund, the Phoenix-based organization which has come to Huguenin’s defense.
Lorence represented Elane Photography at a Jan. 28-29 hearing and is coordinating post-trial briefs.
He doesn’t expect a decision for several months. But whatever the outcome, Lorence said, the fact that Huguenin must defend herself before a state tribunal “makes this a serious threat to religious liberty and the right of conscience.”
Lorence said the New Mexico case is only one example of a growing trend to use human rights tribunals and civil courts against individuals who make decisions based on their religious beliefs.
Said Lorence, “It is becoming more and more common as a way to tighten the noose on religious bodies and anyone who has a traditional view of marriage and family.”
Lorence cited a local Knights of Columbus council in British Columbia, which was fined $2,000 by the province’s Human Rights Tribunal in 2005 for refusing to rent their hall for a same-sex “wedding” reception.
In another case, a Methodist facility in Ocean Grove, N.J., faces a tax bill of $20,000 after its state tax-exempt status was revoked for refusing to host a homosexual commitment ceremony.
And in late February, the threat of a discrimination lawsuit forced a Catholic hospital in California to agree to perform breast augmentation surgery on a transsexual man.
The transsexual man, Charlene Hastings, filed a complaint against the Daughters of Charity Health System in San Francisco Superior Court for harassment and discrimination after the hospital group’s Seton Medical Center refused the surgery.
In a written statement in February, health system spokeswoman Elizabeth Nikels said the hospital was simply following “our ethics and standards of behavior in health care. The hospital does not perform surgery procedures contrary to Catholic teaching; for example, abortion, direct euthanasia, transgender surgery of any or its related components.”
But on Feb. 27, Bay Area TV station CBS News 5 said the hospital had changed its position, the California Catholic Daily reported March 1.
In a statement to CBS News 5, a hospital spokesman said, “We regret any confusion that may have come from this situation. We want this patient and her physician to know that they are welcome at Seton Medical Center.”
Hastings’ lawyer Chris Dolan said that his client would continue to seek monetary damages despite the hospital’s reversal of policy.
Said Dolan, “Like any good religious experience, first you need enlightenment and then you need atonement.”
In the New Mexico case, Labor Relations Division Director Francie Cordova said she’s simply enforcing the law.
Cordova, who personally approved the prosecution of Elane Photography as director of the Human Rights Bureau, said Huguenin’s religious beliefs are irrelevant to the question of whether to initiate a prosecution.
“For the division, we look at whether anyone who holds themselves open for business refused service based on race, gender or any other protected status,” Cordova said. “If prima facie evidence is found, it is our obligation to prosecute.”
The complaint against Huguenin is about artistic freedom as well as religious freedom, according to her attorney Lorence.
“You’re saying the government can compel anyone to use their talents to further goals you don’t agree with,” he said. “Otherwise, there will be retaliation.”
Said Lorence, “If you give government the right to punish people for having a different opinion than the prevailing secular orthodoxy, you’re saying whoever controls government can suppress dissent. I think we embrace that idea at our peril.”
Philip Moore is based in