Wedding Photographer Sues For “Artistic Freedom” to Deny Service to Gay Couples July 3, 2020

Wedding Photographer Sues For “Artistic Freedom” to Deny Service to Gay Couples

The Virginia Values Act has been in effect for barely a day, and already the religious freedom wonks are out in force, complaining about the unbearable burden of treating LGBTQ people with respect and dignity.

Simply put, the law prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity. Whatever it is you do — whether it’s lending money, baking cakes, or renting out apartments — you can’t refuse to do it for somebody because they’re part of the LGBTQ community. (Obviously, religious institutions are exempt from these rules.)

That seems simple enough, but of course “religious freedom” advocates never quite get their heads around the idea that they can’t force other people to live by the rules of their religion outside their churches.

Thus, anti-LGBTQ advocacy organization Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) has filed a pre-enforcement challenge against the new legislation at lightning speed, acting on behalf of photographer Chris Herring, who lists wedding photography as one of many services he offers.

For Herring, this isn’t just a question of religious liberty; he says the law that requires him to treat LGBTQ couples as he would straight ones denies his artistic freedom.

Herring insists that his art is inseparable from his Christian faith. From his lawsuit:

Plaintiff Chris Herring is a photographer with a passion to show others the beauty in God’s creation. [. . .] In all his photography, Chris’ passion shapes how and what he creates. And like most other artists, Chris creates photographs for anyone no matter who they are; he just cannot create some content for anyone no matter who they are – whether that be content promoting pollution, pornography, or certain views about marriage.

The argument goes that, because Herring is willing to photograph LGBTQ people in some contexts – the Virginian-Pilot cites “brand and adventure shoots” – his business doesn’t discriminate against them, even as he unabashedly states that he wants to refuse gay and lesbian couples a service that he provides to straight ones.

Rather than sitting him down and explaining to him what the word “discriminate” actually means, the people at Alliance Defending Freedom have tried to paint Herring as a martyr for his artistic vision, all because that vision happens to be Christian in nature:

While Chris photographs people of all backgrounds and beliefs, he doesn’t promote certain messages for anyone. For instance, he will not take any photographs with pornographic images or racist messages. In his adventure photography, he will not promote things like drug tourism or violence. And in his wedding photography, he cannot photograph any weddings except those between one man and one woman.

You see, as a Christian, Chris believes that God designed marriage as a covenant between one man and one woman to reflect Christ’s relationship with the Church. Because of this, he cannot use his talents to celebrate events that contradict his faith, such as same-sex weddings.

But some of Chris’s convictions could get him in serious trouble in Virginia.

Let’s set aside the part where Sarah Kramer, who posted the story on ADF’s blog, places same-sex weddings in the same category as racism, violence, and drug abuse. Herring is free to convey whatever ideas and messages he wants in his personal artistic work. If he is offering a service to the public, though, he has to offer it without discrimination; if he doesn’t want to photograph same-sex weddings, he needs to stop photographing straight ones. Otherwise, it’s discriminatory.

The text of the lawsuit seems to imply that Herring would happily photograph same-sex weddings if he were allowed to hide them away like a dirty little secret and omit them from his online portfolio (a suggestion worth taking with a hefty dose of skepticism). But the law, they allege, doesn’t just force him to provide services for LGBTQ people; he has to actively admit to it, even advertise it:

Virginia interprets this law to force Chris to do more than serve LGBT clients (which Chris already does). Virginia instead requires Chris to promote content he disagrees with — to create and convey photographs and blogs celebrating same-sex weddings because he does so for weddings between a man and a woman.

The law even makes it illegal for Chris to hold a policy of photographing and blogging about weddings only between a man and woman or to post Internet statements explaining his religious reasons for only creating this wedding content.

The legislation does indeed make it a violation for service providers to publish a notice of their intent to discriminate, and with good reason: It’s still discrimination even if you’re notified beforehand that you can expect to be excluded.

Having said that, it’s not clear how the brand-spanking-new law will be enforced in Virginia. He probably can’t outright state that he’s going to discriminate against gay and lesbian couples, but can he leave those portraits out of his portfolio and hope queer couples take the subtle hint? Perhaps. Time will tell.

(Image via Shutterstock)

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