Supreme Court Justices to ponder New Mexico photographer case

Later this week, Supreme Court will review a highly publicized case about a New Mexico photographer who refused to shoot a same-sex commitment ceremony. If accepted, the case would be heard in the Court’s next term, starting in October.

350px-Supreme_Court_US_2010The case, Elane Photography v. Willock, received its fair share of publicity during the recent controversy in Arizona over a proposed change to that state’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act.  It will be considered in private conference on March 21, and the Court could announce the case’s fate on March 24.

Republican lawmakers in Arizona decided to pursue SB 1062 after a court in neighboring New Mexico last year in Elane Photography v. Willock, said that a photographer who refused to document a same-sex couple’s commitment ceremony had violated New Mexico’s public accommodations laws.

Arizona’s outgoing governor, Jan Brewer, vetoed the bill, known as SB 1062, citing what she called “broad language” in the bill.

In briefs filed with the Supreme Court, the key question in the case centers on the photographer’s claim that the New Mexico law creates a conflict with her religious beliefs and violates the First Amendment’s ban on compelled speech.

The Arizona lawmakers saw the New Mexico case as a call to action to propose Arizona’s own expanded version of a Religious Freedom Restoration Act, also known as RFRA. If the acronym RFRA seems familiar, it is at the heart of two high-profile cases in front of the Supreme Court on March 25 about the contraception mandate and the Affordable Care Act (also known as Obamacare).

The federal version of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act dates back to 1993, when it was passed by Congress after a controversial Supreme Court decision in 1990 angered liberals and conservatives. But after Congress passed RFRA, the Supreme Court ruled in 1997 that the Act couldn’t be applied to states.

Currently, 21 states have their own versions of RFRA laws and the future of those acts could hinge on developments at the federal level.

In the New Mexico case, the defendant couldn’t invoke that state’s version of RFRA, because it was a lawsuit between two parties not involving the state.

The case started in 2006, when Vanessa Willock of Albuquerque , N.M., contacted Elane Photography to ask whether the business would take pictures of her commitment ceremony to another woman.   Elane Photography said it would only take photos of “traditional weddings,” and turned away the business.

Later, the couple hired a different studio, and the commitment ceremony proceeded. Willock then filed a discrimination complaint under New Mexico law, which protects people against discrimination based on sexual orientation.

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