Metro Weekly

Norfolk photographer sues Virginia over its new LGBTQ nondiscrimination law

Chris Herring claims the Virginia Values Act will either force him to photograph gay weddings, in violation of his beliefs, or go bankrupt

wedding, gay, marriage, same-sex
Photo: Nick Karvounis / Unsplash

A Norfolk wedding photographer is suing the commonwealth of Virginia over a newly-enacted law intended to protect LGBTQ people from discrimination.

The photographer, Chris Herring, has argued that the passage of the Virginia Values Act, which prohibits discrimination in public accommodations, violates his religious freedom by forcing him to promote same-sex marriage.

In his lawsuit, Herring claims he has a “passion to show others the beauty in God’s creation” and to “capture the beauty God created in marriage.” But he worries that the Virginia Values Act — and any other law that allows equal access to public accommodations — could lead to him being approached by a same-sex couple.

Due to his personal religious beliefs opposing same-sex marriage, Herring fears that the law would force him to either photograph a gay wedding, or risk financial penalties if he refuses to photograph a wedding that violates his beliefs.

“Like most other artists, Chris creates photographs for anyone no matter who they are; he just cannot create some content for anyone no matter who they are — whether that be content promoting pollution, pornography, or certain views about marriage,” the complaint, filed by the anti-LGBTQ legal organization Alliance Defending Freedom on Herring’s behalf, reads.

The lawsuit cites comments by some lawmakers who voted in favor of the bill, arguing that remarks by some Virginia Democrats during the floor debate on the Virginia Values Act expressed animosity towards those with socially conservative views.

“Legislators who passed Virginia’s law called views like Chris’ ‘bigotry’ and sought to punish them with ‘unlimited punitive damages’ to remove them from the public square,” ADF writes in the complaint.

The complaint echoes arguments made in the Masterpiece Cakeshop case (also filed by ADF) that came before the Supreme Court challenging Colorado’s LGBTQ-inclusive nondiscrimination law. In that case, the high court found that some Colorado officials had expressed improper religious bias against a baker who refused to bake cakes for same-sex weddings. However, the court never resolved the issue of whether a business owner’s personal religious or moral beliefs are justification for refusing services to LGBTQ individuals or same-sex couples.

But Herring’s lawsuit, which is a “pre-emptive challenge” — meaning that he has not yet been approached by any same-sex couple asking for wedding photography — is much more similar to an Arizona lawsuit that challenged a Phoenix nondiscrimination ordinance. In that case, the Arizona Supreme Court ruled that the ordinance could not compel the owners of a calligraphy business to create artwork for same-sex weddings, in violation of their religious beliefs.

See also: Supreme Court rules Civil Rights Act protects LGBTQ people from workplace discrimination

Kate Anderson, senior legal counsel with ADF, told The Virginian-Pilot that Herring wants to post a belief statement on his business website outlining his opposition to photographing gay weddings, but fears he’ll be fined by the state so severely that he’ll be forced to close his business or file for bankruptcy.

“Because of my faith, I can only photograph consistent with who I am and what I believe. I can only photograph what celebrates God’s creation and design for the world,” reads the statement that Herring wishes to post on his website. “I won’t photograph ceremonies that contradict God’s design for marriage as something between one man and one woman.”

Anderson alleges that Attorney General Mark Herring, who is also named as a defendant in the lawsuit, will interpret and try to enforce the law in a way that violates Chris Herring’s religious freedom. She has pointed to amicus briefs that the Attorney General has previously signed onto that argue that religious beliefs should not be used to justify discriminating against LGBTQ individuals or same-sex couples.

The attorney general’s office issued a statement saying it would review the lawsuit and respond in court.

“Attorney General Herring believes that every Virginian has the right to be safe and free from discrimination no matter what they look like, where they come from, or who they love,” spokeswoman Charlotte Gomer said in a statement emailed to The Virginian-Pilot. “LGBT Virginians are finally protected from housing and employment discrimination under Virginia law and Attorney General Herring looks forward to defending the Virginia Values Act in court against these attacks.”

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