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U.S. high court won’t hear gay discrimination appeal

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When the U.S. Supreme Court refused Monday to hear the case brought by a lesbian couple against a photo studio that refused to take pictures of their commitment ceremony, it ended the case if not the controversy.

Vanessa Willock won the discrimination lawsuit she brought against Elane Photography at the state Human Rights Commission, the 2nd District Court, New Mexico Court of Appeals and the New Mexico Supreme Court, leaving the photo studio with only one place to go – the U.S. Supreme Court.

The Human Rights Campaign, a civil rights nonprofit advocating on behalf of lesbian, gay, transgender and bisexual people, called the high court’s decision not to hear the case a win for laws banning discrimination.

The Elane Photography petition raised both religious and First Amendment freedom of expression objections in state court rulings, but the religious claims were dropped when the U.S. Supreme Court briefing was prepared.

Jordan Lorence, senior trial counsel for the Alliance Defending Freedom, which represented the photo studio, said the reasons for doing so were mostly technical because part of the studio’s defense relied on the New Mexico Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

He said the New Mexico court rejected the religious freedom claim, adding, “I don’t think the wording (of the act) supports what (the) New Mexico Supreme Court said.”

Because Elane Photography also had a very strong freedom of expression claim, Lorence said the legal team decided to streamline the case using that issue.

“We had one of the most prominent religious liberty scholars in the nation, Douglas Laycock of the University of Virginia, who supports gay marriage, showing them that this reading of the act was wrong,” Lorence said. Laycock supported Elane Photography in the case.

Lorence predicted other opportunities for the court to consider the issue in cases now in the court system.

The state Supreme Court ruling was based on a finding that business owners Elane and Jonathan Huguenin of Albuquerque violated state anti-discrimination laws by refusing to photograph the same-sex ceremony. That decision was entered before the same court recognized gay marriage in a different case.

The Human Rights Campaign’s legal director Sarah Warbelow said the U.S. Supreme Court decision “has paved the way for robust enforcement of nondiscrimination laws. When businesses open their doors to the public, they must abide by the law and not expect special treatment based on personal beliefs.”

Journalist Lyle Denniston wrote in SCOTUSblog, which monitors the U.S. Supreme Court, that the court “refused to be drawn into the spreading controversy over the right of business firms to refuse to serve gay and lesbian customers.”

He noted state lawmakers are considering legislation targeting the issue. A bill passed in Arizona that would have allowed businesses to refuse to deal with customers based on religious objections to customers’ character or lifestyle, he wrote, but was blocked by the governor’s veto.

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