Supreme Court denies appeal in gay discrimination case

The Supreme Court won’t hear an appeal from a New Mexico photography studio that lost a lawsuit after it refused services to a same-sex couple.

The Court said without comment on Monday that it wouldn’t accept the case of Elane Photography v. Willock. The case received publicity during the recent controversy in neighboring Arizona over a proposed change to that state’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

The Elane Photography 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 filed a discrimination complaint under New Mexico law, which protects people against discrimination based on sexual orientation under its own public accommodations laws.

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Republican lawmakers in Arizona decided to pursue their own legal changes after the Elane Photography ruling, but Arizona’s outgoing governor, Jan Brewer, vetoed the Arizona bill.

In briefs filed with the Supreme Court, the Elane Photography case centered on the photographer’s claim that the New Mexico law created a conflict with her religious beliefs and violated the First Amendment’s ban on compelled speech.

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.

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.

For now, the Court has passed on the issue but new challenges could arise. Currently, 22 states have their own versions of RFRA laws and the future of those acts could hinge on developments at the federal level and in cases like the Elane Photography case.

Last week, Mississippi became the latest state to agree on its own RFRA bill, which Governor Phil Bryant is expected to sign.

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