Thursday, April 2, 2015

Controversy: The Religious Rights of Photographers

One year ago I published a post entitled Controversy: Do You Have The Right To Refuse Photographic Service? In that post I said:
"Two photographers in New Mexico, a husband and wife team, turned down a request to photograph a lesbian couple's 'commitment ceremony' due to conflicts with their religious beliefs. Some time later the lesbian couple sued the photographers and won.
"The photographers appealed the decision all the way to New Mexico's Supreme Court, and they still lost. One justice wrote that the photographers must compromise their religious beliefs as 'the price of citizenship.'"
It might be worth your time to reread that post, because I said a lot more than what is quoted above. But I wanted to bring this back up in light of the controversy in Indiana and some other states.

Indiana passed a state law, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which some took as being discriminatory. Never mind that an identical law exists at the federal level, signed into law by President Bill Clinton in 1993.

The law (both the state law and the federal law, in fact), in essence, protects businesses and individuals from being compelled (forced) by the government to do something that violates their religious beliefs.
Stallion Springs Community Church - Stallion Springs, California
The First Amendment of the Constitution of the United States of America starts out, "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof." But what's interesting is James Madison's original proposed wording of that. Madison wrote, "The civil rights of none shall be abridged on account of religious belief or worship, nor shall any national religion be established, nor shall the full and equal rights of conscience by in any manner, or on any pretext infringed."

James Madison's original text is important because it shows the intended meaning of the shorter text that was later adapted. Bill Clinton reaffirmed that original intent by signing the Religious Freedom Restoration Act in 1993 (it was passed almost unanimously by both the house and senate). Clinton said, "We all have a shared desire here to protect perhaps the most precious of all American liberties--religious freedom." He added, "The free exercise of religion has been called the first freedom--that which originally sparked the full range of the Bill of Rights."

What does this all have to do with two photographers in New Mexico? The federal law only applies to the federal government. The federal government cannot force those two photographers to do something that violates their religion. Their civil liberties are protected. However, state governments are not bound by this law. To provide the same religious civil liberties, states must have similar laws or wording in their state constitutions. Indiana became one of about 20 states to put a law in the books ensuring that the rights of religious people are not infringed.

If you are a photographer and you are religious, it is in your interest to know if the state you live in (or do business in) has a law like Indiana. If not, you could end up like those two photographers in New Mexico: shut down by the state.
The Desert Cross - Mojave, California
Interestingly enough, New Mexico is one of the states with a similar law. So how is it, then, that the photographers in New Mexico are compelled by the state to compromise their religious beliefs? Why didn't New Mexico's law protect the religious liberties of those two photographers? Because New Mexico's law is more limited in scope (softer) than Indiana's law (or even the federal law).

I want to make it clear: I'm not suggesting that anyone discriminate against anyone. I'm not "homophobic" or prejudice, so don't even go there. This is not about me. I know there are some boiling with anger over what I just wrote. Just calm down.

Laws that protect the civil liberties of religious people are not infringing on the civil liberties of others. Those suggesting that have not logically considered this matter enough. Nowhere in the Constitution is one given the right to force another to do something that they believe is against their religious convictions.

The Indiana (and federal) law can be best metaphorically described as a shield and not a sword. The law is designed to protect, and it does not give anyone the right to harm. If someone is "harmed" by the law (such as a photographer refusing to provide someone a service due to religious reasons), it is only because the "victim" was attempting to violate the religious liberties of another. This would be the "flip side" of the coin.
Two White Crosses - Rosamond, California
Whichever side of the coin you want to view, what the law (both state and federal) actually does is allow a defense in court. And that's it. The law can be put this way: Government shall not substantially burden a person's exercise of religion. It must be proven in court that the burden is substantial or not. It's not some kind of free-for-all. It doesn't allow for racism, sexism or any other kind of "ism". It is a defense in court meant to protect the civil liberties of religious people against a substantial burden to the exercise of their religion. You know, that "first" and "most precious" of civil liberties (as Bill Clinton put it). That civil liberty that some seem to forget exists (or wish didn't exist).

So a lot of what's been said about the Indiana law simply isn't true. A lot has been exaggerated, or told out of context. It's not anything to be upset about.

For photographers, the law is good. Without the law you do not have the right to refuse service to anyone for any reason. If someone asks you to photograph something, no matter how much you may disagree with it, and no matter how much it may be a violation of your religious views, you have to do it. If you refuse, someone may sue you and the government may compel you to do it (or put you out of business if you still refuse). And you never know what someone may ask you to photograph. Think beyond homosexual weddings (which was the New Mexico example). Certainly there are people with ideas that are way out there--ideas that you may have moral objections to.

I'm hoping that more states adopt laws similar to the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act. I would certainly hate to find myself in a situation similar to those two photographers in New Mexico.


  1. Very well written! So many people get caught up in the exaggerations of media without taking a step back, gathering factual information and viewing the situation with new perspective.

    1. Thanks for the reply, Sarah! I think that many people have viewed this whole thing through rose-colored glasses without really taking a deeper look.