Chris Herring is a wedding photographer. He is also a Christian who believes that marriage is a God-ordained institution between one man and one woman. He wants to celebrate that kind of marriage using his creative skills in both photography and blogging, to create an artistic and lasting memory for the happy couple. He doesn’t want to use his skills to promote other kinds of unions, including same-sex ones.
The Commonwealth of Virginia’s most recent anti-discrimination law, known as the Virginia Values Act, would subject Chris to an initial fine of up to $50,000 for the first offense of refusing to photograph a same-sex wedding, up to $100,000 for each successive offense, plus damages and attorneys’ fees. The law also forbids Chris to explain via his website why he only desires to photograph traditional marriages.
The law is designed to coerce Chris to either violate his faith or go out of business. There is no middle ground that the Virginia General Assembly has provided where religious conscience might be accommodated. It doesn’t matter to the government that there are 800 other wedding photographers in Virginia who would willingly provide their services for a same-sex wedding.
In order to preserve his livelihood, Chris and his attorneys at Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) have filed a federal lawsuit alleging that Chris’ First Amendment rights have been violated.
“Artists shouldn’t be censored, fined, or forced out of business simply for disagreeing with the government’s preferred views,” said ADF Senior Counsel Jonathan Scruggs, director of the ADF Center for Conscience Initiatives, in a press release. “Because of Virginia’s new law, Chris faces an impossible choice: violate the law and risk bankruptcy, promote views against his faith, or close down. No matter one’s views on marriage, we all lose when bureaucrats can force citizens to participate in religious ceremonies they oppose, speak messages they disagree with, and stay silent about beliefs they hold dear.”
Recent cases involving Christian graphic design artists and videographers faced with laws similar to Virginia’s have been decided in favor of the artists by the Arizona Supreme Court as well as the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. Of the numerous cases around the country involving religious freedom, wedding vendors generally and same-sex unions, only Jack Phillips, the Christian baker from Lakewood, Colorado, reached the U.S. Supreme Court in Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission. In that 2018 decision the high court ruled that animus toward religion by the state’s civil rights commissioners was fatal to the state’s claim that Phillips had violated the Colorado anti-discrimination statute when he declined to use his artistic skills to create a one-of-a-kind cake for a same-sex wedding.
However, the Supreme Court never addressed the free speech issue in Jack Phillips’ case, saying that the facts in that case were not clear enough. That issue, however, is clearly teed up in this case, as it is in a similar case from Kentucky. Can the government compel the speech of an unwilling speaker? Can Virginia force Chris to use his skills to create an expressive message of approval of a marriage that violates his religious conscience?
The Commonwealth wants to force the biblical message of God’s design for marriage and sexuality out of the public square. Please pray that Chris’ efforts to vindicate his constitutional rights are successful.
Photo from Alliance Defending Freedom
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