Religious Accommodations and the Elane Photography Case:

In my earlier post about the photographer who refused to photograph a same-sex commitment ceremony — and was punished by the government as a result — I discussed the First Amendment objections to the New Mexico Human Rights Commission’s decision. But the decision may also violate the photographer’s religious freedom rights under the New Mexico Religious Freedom Restoration Act. The act, which is similar to the legal rules in place in about half the states and as to federal law, provides that

A government agency shall not restrict a person’s free exercise of religion [i.e., an act or a refusal to act that is substantially motivated by religious belief] unless … the application of the restriction to the person is essential to further a compelling governmental interest and is the least restrictive means of furthering that compelling governmental interest.

Elaine Huguenin’s refusal to photograph a same-sex commitment ceremony does seem to be substantially motivated by her religious belief. She is therefore entitled to an exemption unless applying the law to her passes “strict scrutiny” — “is the least restrictive means of furthering [and is essential to furthering a] compelling governmental interest.”

What government interests might justify denying Huguenin the exemption? If the interest is in making sure that people have roughly equal access to services, regardless of their sexual orientation, then I doubt that requiring Huguenin to photograph the ceremony is essential to serving that interest. There surely are lots of other photographers in Albquerque, and I have no reason to think that all or even most of them share Huguenin’s religious objections; if Huguenin is given an exemption, same-sex couples will still have lots of photography services available to them. And given that a wedding photographer, to do a great job, likely needs to feel some empathy with the ceremony, forcing the Huguenins of the world into photographing a ceremony that they disapprove of will likely not give same-sex couples very good service.

But if the government’s view is that people have a moral right not to be discriminated against — entirely independently of any practical burden that such discrimination imposes on them — based on their sexual orientation, then it would appear that every instance of sexual orientation discrimination would violate that right. And if the government has a compelling interest in vindicating that right, then granting an exemption even to a few religious objectors would jeopardize that interest, and denying the objection would be essential to maximally furthering the interest. On the other hand, can New Mexico assert such a compelling interest when it itself discriminates against same-sex couples in its marriage laws?

So the religious freedom issue would turn, I take it, on what version of the government interest New Mexico courts ultimately recognize — the first version, focusing on practical access to services, which should lead to granting an exemption, or the second, focusing on a supposed moral right not to be discriminated against, which should lead to denying an exemption (if the government is seen as having a compelling interest in protecting that right). Incidentally, in a similar area, marital status discrimination in housing against unmarried couples, the several state courts applying state religious accommodation regimes have split, based precisely on this issue of which sort of interest is involved.