Metro Weekly

New York photographer who doesn’t want to photograph same-sex weddings appeals case dismissal

Emilee Carpenter says New York's law prohibiting discrimination against LGBTQ people violates her right to express her religious beliefs.

Photo: Smart Photo Courses / Tom Pumford / Flickr

A New York wedding photographer is appealing a federal judge’s decision throwing out a lawsuit she brought challenging LGBTQ protections in the state’s nondiscrimination law. 

Emilee Carpenter, of Elmira, filed the suit last year, claiming that the law’s protections for sexual orientation and gender identity in public accommodations violate her constitutional rights, including her right to free speech and freedom of religion. She has claimed that she believes marriage is an “inherently religious” event that can only apply to unions between one man and one woman, and fears that the law will either force her to “participate” in ceremonies to which she morally objects, or pay steep fines for refusing to photograph same-sex weddings.

In her initial complaint, Carpenter’s lawyers, from Alliance Defending Freedom — a law firm that regularly engages in lawsuits challenging laws that expand LGBTQ rights or protections — argued that the law “compels” their client to communicate a message with which she disagrees. They argue that her photography is a form of artistic expression, and forcing her to provide her services to same-sex weddings would be the same as compelling her to “promote” a message approving of same-sex unions.

But last month, U.S. District Judge Frank Geraci, Jr., of the Western District of New York, dismissed Carpenter’s lawsuit, saying the court was “not persuaded” by Carpenter’s argument that the law should be overturned or partially gutted to grant her a religious exemption, thereby allowing her to discriminate against same-sex couples. Geraci contended that the state also has a “compelling interest” in ensuring that LGBTQ individuals and same-sex couples “have equal access to publicly available goods and services.”

On Wednesday, Carpenter’s attorneys told the U.S. District Court for the Western District of New York in a filing that they will be appealing Geraci’s ruling.

“This is a free speech issue. And I believe that all artists should be free to choose the messages they promote,” Carpenter told The Washington Times in an interview. She contended that when she photographs weddings, she is doing more than just “documenting” a wedding, adding creative touches by editing each individual image and assembling a “story” from those images that captures memorable moments from a couple’s wedding.

“It’s not just about me, it’s not just about those who identify with a certain faith or religion,” she said. “It is about all speech makers and all artists. Their speech is on the line with this. And we are urging the government to uphold the First Amendment and protect my speech so that I may choose the messages that I promote without fear of government punishment.”

Alliance Defending Freedom, which had called Geraci’s decision “Orwellian” in a statement issued after the dismissal, has complained that New York’s nondiscrimination law is “particularly unique” in that it prevents Carpenter from informing customers — through a published notice or statement on her website, for example — that she refuses to photograph same-sex weddings. Because she can’t express any message explicitly stating her intent to discriminate, ADF legal counsel Jake Warner told the Times that the law effectively silences her from being able to talk openly about her personal religious beliefs.

“The First Amendment forbids the government from forcing anyone to express a message that goes against their deepest beliefs,” Warner said. “The Supreme Court has long held this principle to be true, but the 10th Circuit and now this district court in New York are trying to undermine that fundamental freedom and that’s bad for every American.”

ADF has likened Carpenter’s case to a similar one out of Colorado featuring another ADF client, Lorie Smith, a website designer who sought an exemption to Colorado’s LGBTQ-inclusive nondiscrimination law due to her personal religious beliefs opposing same-sex marriage. In that case, the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled against Smith, finding that the law was “narrowly tailored” enough to ensure that LGBTQ individuals are not discriminated against without overly burdening Smith’s right to believe what she wants — a decision cited by Geraci in his own ruling.

ADF has since asked the U.S. Supreme Court to intervene in the case and hear arguments about why Smith — and other religious believers — should be exempt from following state laws that prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity.

New York Attorney General Letitia James’ office will be tasked with defending the state should the appeals court restore Carpenter’s lawsuit. Following the dismissal, James celebrated Geraci’s ruling, calling it a “huge victory” for the LGBTQ community.

“The LGBTQ+ community is an integral part of New York, and no New Yorker should be excluded or turned away from a business or denied a service because of their sexual orientation or gender identity,” James said at the time. “Love is love, which is why my office will always fight to ensure that all New Yorkers are treated equally under the law.”

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