George Will: Advocating tolerance, to a point

BY GEORGE F. WILL Published: September 16, 2012
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Elaine Huguenin, who with her husband operates Elane Photography in New Mexico, asks only to be let alone. But instead of being allowed a reasonable zone of sovereignty in which to live her life in accordance with her beliefs, she is being bullied by people wielding government power.

In 2006, Vanessa Willock, who was in a same-sex relationship, emailed Elane Photography about photographing a “commitment ceremony” she and her partner were planning. Willock said this would be a “same-gender ceremony.” Elane Photography responded that it photographed “traditional weddings.” The Huguenins are Christians who, for religious reasons, disapprove of same-sex unions. Willock sent a second email asking whether this meant that the company “does not offer photography services to same-sex couples.” Elane Photography responded “you are correct.”

Willock could then have said regarding Elane Photography what many same-sex couples have long hoped a tolerant society would say regarding them — “live and let live.” Willock could have hired a photographer with no objections to such events. Instead, Willock and her partner set out to break the Huguenins to the state's saddle.

Willock's partner, without disclosing her relationship with Willock, emailed Elane Photography. She said she was getting married and asked if the company would travel to photograph it. The company said yes. Willock's partner never responded.

Instead, Willock, spoiling for a fight, filed a discrimination claim with the New Mexico Human Rights Commission, charging that Elane Photography is a “public accommodation,” akin to a hotel or restaurant, that denied her its services because of her sexual orientation. The NMHRC found against Elane and ordered it to pay $6,600 in attorney fees.

But what a tangled web we weave when we undertake to regulate more and more behaviors under overlapping codifications of conflicting rights. Elaine Huguenin says she is being denied her right to the “free exercise” of religion guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution's First Amendment and a similar provision in the New Mexico constitution. Furthermore, New Mexico's Religious Freedom Restoration Act defines “free exercise” as “an act or a refusal to act that is substantially motivated by religious belief,” and forbids government from abridging that right except to “further a compelling government interest.”

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