Refusing to Photograph a Gay Wedding Isn't Hateful

Some opposition to same-sex marriage is rooted in bigotry and some isn't. Assuming otherwise is itself prejudice rooted in ignorance.
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Remember the New Mexico photographer who got sued after declining to photograph a lesbian couple's wedding, citing religious objections to same-sex marriage? Her name is Elaine Huguenin. In Slate, Mark Joseph Stern has branded her a "homophobe" and an "anti-gay bigot" whose actions sprung from hatred.* He offers no evidence in support of those charges. Insofar as I've found, nothing in the public record establishes that this Christian photographer is afraid of gay people, or intolerant of them, or that she bears any hatred toward gays or lesbians.

The facts of her case do suggest that she regards marriage as a religious sacrament with a procreative purpose, that her Christian beliefs cause her to reject same-sex marriage, and that her business discriminates against same-sex weddings because she believes wedding photography requires artistic efforts to render the subject captured in a positive light. She believes making that effort would be wrong. 

In America, there is plenty of homophobia, plenty of anti-gay bigotry, and plenty of people whose antagonism to gays and lesbians is rooted in hatred. Sometimes the language of religious liberty is used to justify behavior that is anything but Christ-like. But the Slate article is implicitly trafficking in its own sort of prejudice. The working assumption is that homophobia, anti-gay bigotry, and hatred are obviously what's motivating anyone who declines to provide a service for a gay wedding. 

That assumption is wrongheaded. A closer look at the photographer's case is the best place to begin. Jonathan and Elaine Huguenin lost a case before the New Mexico Supreme Court, and have now appealed the ruling. As noted in their petition to the U.S. Supreme Court, the Huguenins' photography business does serve gay and lesbian clients, just not same-sex weddings. Insofar as a photographer can distinguish between discriminating against a class of client and a type of event—there is, perhaps, a limit—their business does so: "The Huguenins gladly serve gays and lesbians—by, for example, providing them with portrait photography—whenever doing so would not require them to create expression conveying messages that conflict with their religious beliefs." 

The photography business has also turned down clients other than gay and lesbian couples while citing religious objections. "They have declined requests for nude maternity pictures," their petition states, "and photographs portraying violence."

Finally, it isn't just same-sex weddings they'd be uncomfortable photographing: their petition states that they'd also refuse business capturing a polygamous marriage.

Set aside for a moment the tension here between individual liberty and non-discrimination law. Whether you think the New Mexico Supreme Court decided the case rightly or wrongly, that is separate from the question of what motivated Elaine Huguenin. I've never met the woman. None of us can look inside her heart. But her petition presents a perfectly plausible account of why she would refuse to photograph same-sex weddings for perfectly common religious reasons that have nothing to do with fear of gays, intolerance toward gays, or hatred of gay people.

This shouldn't be surprising to anyone who has spent an appreciable amount of time around practicing Christians. In such circles, there are plenty of ugly attitudes toward gays and lesbians, as well as lots of people who think gay and lesbian sex and marriage is sinful, but who bear no ill will toward gays and lesbians themselves. I wish even the latter group would reconsider. I don't regard homosexuality as sinful. Unlike my friends in the orthodox Catholic community, I don't regard sex before marriage or masturbation or the use of contraceptives or failing to attend Sunday Mass as sinful either. Knowing those Catholic friends neither fear me nor treat me with intolerance nor bear hatred toward me, it's easy for me to see how they could view gay sex or marriage as sinful without hating gays or lesbians. 

Mark Joseph Stern does not share that understanding: 

There’s a reason these same three cases pop up time and time again: They tell a very human story of a small-business owner suddenly trapped in the labyrinth of a lawsuit, the victim of the gay rights movement run amok. Never mind that the real victim isn’t the business owner who acted on his hatred, but the customer who suffered from his discriminatory policies. If you tilt the looking glass just right, you can reverse these roles, turning a bigot into a principled entrepreneur and a wronged minority into entitled bullies.

He casually assumes that hatred is what motivated these business owners to act without even seeming to realize an assumption has been made. The photography case certainly does involve a principled entrepreneur, even if you disagree, as I do, with her particular belief system. And while I don't think that the lesbian customers in this case should have sued, I don't think that they're "entitled bullies." To return to the facts once more, here is the initial email that they wrote:

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.

Thanks

And the reply they got:

Hello Vanessa, As a company, we photograph traditional weddings, engagements, seniors, and several other things such as political photographs and singer's portfolios. 

Elaine

The exchange continued:

Hi Elaine,

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?

Thanks,
Vanessa

And the clarification:

Hello Vanessa,

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.

Elaine

The New Mexico Human Rights Commission went on to explain that "Ms. Willock was shocked, angered and saddened to receive Ms. Elaine Huguenin's response. Ms. Willock was also fearful, because she considered the opposition to same-sex to be so blatant. Ms. Willock thought that Ms. Elaine Huguenin's response was an expression of hatred at what Ms. Willock had hoped to be a happy occasion."

I sympathize with Willock. 

If my wife and I had contacted a wedding photographer who said she refused to photograph our ceremony because we'd "lived in sin" together before marriage, I'd have felt annoyed and judged. And while I think Willock was wrong to perceive "hatred," which doesn't come across in the exchange, or even "blatant" opposition to same-sex marriage—it was so subtle that a followup email was required to clarify—this all happened in a state, New Mexico, that didn't permit gay weddings. (The event was technically a commitment ceremony for the lesbian couple.)

That context matters.

If you believe, as I do, that refusing gay couples the right to marry is an indefensible abrogation of their rights—an attempt to deny them access to a core institution of social flourishing—you can see how I'd forgive a woman in such a jurisdiction, who has suffered unjust and hateful treatment in the course of her life, for misperceiving the nature of the photographer's attitudes toward gays and lesbians. 

I can also understand how she could reach different conclusions than I do about whether the fight for equality we both favor ought to include her specific lawsuit. 

But it's hard to be as forgiving of Stern's Slate article (which also includes an egregious, unfounded, unfair attack on the integrity of New York Times columnist Ross Douthat). Care should be taken before alleging hatred, partly out of fairness to the accused, but also because it's awful to feel hated. Telling a group that an incident or dispute is rooted in bigotry when evidence supports a different conclusion increases the perception of being hated more than reality justifies. Dealing with the amount of actual hatefulness in America is already hard enough.

 

__

* In fact, this is his blanket characterization of entrepreneurs in three cases, "a florist, a photographer, and a baker, who claimed their Christianity required that they deny service to gay couples." I focus on the photographer here because I have the most information on her case. 

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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