Colliding causes: Gay rights and religious liberty

Published: Saturday, Feb. 11 2012 1:00 p.m. MST

Supporting and opposing views converge during a demonstration on the issue of Proposition 8 in San Francisco, Thursday, March 5, 2009.

Associated Press

View the Deseret News editorial "Protecting rights of conscience" here.

ALBUQUERQUE — Scrolling through her e-mail inbox on a fall day in 2006, photographer Elaine Huguenin opened a new message from a potential client expecting to rattle off prices, extra travel fees and proofing policies.

But this e-mail was different, and contained a question that would set in motion a series of events thrusting Huguenin and her photography business into court and the center of a new controversy.

Just a few years before, Huguenin had started a home-based photography business in Albuquerque with her husband Jonathan. After years of snapping pictures on summer vacations and taking pictures for family and friends, Huguenin realized it was more than a hobby — it was her calling, her way to visually explain and explore the world.

So when the young Christian couple began "Elane Photography," they agreed to never photograph anything that conflicted with their beliefs.

That's why Huguenin didn't hesitate to respond matter-of-factly to the e-mail from Vanessa Willock who asked about photographing a commitment ceremony with her long-time girlfriend.

"We do not photograph same-sex weddings," Huguenin wrote. "But again, thanks for checking out our site! Have a great day."

Three months later, Willock filed a complaint with the New Mexico Human Rights Commission, which heard the case in January of 2008. At the hearing, Jonathan Huguenin told the commission about their business assumptions:

"We wanted to make sure that everything we photographed — everything we used our artistic ability for, everything we told a story for or conveyed a message of — would be in line with our religious beliefs."

Huguenin explained that taking the assignment would have meant promoting something she believes is morally wrong.

The state's human rights commission was unmoved and found Huguenin guilty of discrimination. She was ordered to pay over $6,000 — the costs of Willock's attorneys.

The decision received little media attention outside of Albuquerque and even now, gay rights advocates brush off the case as an anomaly. But in the five years since that e-mail, Huguenin has become a poster child for the growing conflict between same-sex marriage and the rights of people of faith — a conflict that experts say is negatively affecting the rights of religious individuals and organizations to live their faith freely and without fear of punishment.

Similar cases are popping up across the country, from Illinois to New Jersey, though most only garner a few local headlines and little national attention.

*In 2008, a lesbian couple asked a Methodist group for permission to use an open-air pavilion for a civil union ceremony in Ocean Grove, New Jersey. The church turned down their application, explaining that they consider the pavilion an extension of their church, a sacred place where members and individuals from the community gather for Bible study, Sunday worship services and choir performances, as well as occasional weddings. Soon after, the couple filed a complaint with the New Jersey Division of Civil Rights, and the Church lost a state-provided tax exemption for public areas of recreation or conservation. A few weeks ago, an administrative law judged ruled that the church couldn't discriminate between heterosexual couples and homosexual couples wanting to use their pavilion for weddings because their pavilion had been considered a public place.

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