National Voices

Sunday, Sep 16 2012 11:00 PM

GEORGE WILL: The tangled web of conflicting rights

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    George Will

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Elaine Huguenin, who with her husband operates Elane Photography in New Mexico, asks only to be let alone. But instead of being allowed a reasonable zone of sovereignty in which to live her life in accordance with her beliefs, she is being bullied by people wielding government power.

In 2006, Vanessa Willock, who was in a same-sex relationship, emailed Elane Photography about photographing a "commitment ceremony" she and her partner were planning. Willock said this would be a "same-gender ceremony." Elane Photography responded that it photographed "traditional weddings." The Huguenins are Christians who, for religious reasons, disapprove of same-sex unions. Willock sent a second email asking whether this meant that the company "does not offer photography services to same-sex couples." Elane Photography responded "you are correct."

Willock could then have said regarding Elane Photography what many same-sex couples have long hoped a tolerant society would say regarding them -- "live and let live." Willock could have hired a photographer with no objections to such events. Instead, Willock and her partner set out to break the Huguenins to the state's saddle.

Willock's partner, without disclosing her relationship with Willock, emailed Elane Photography. She said she was getting married -- actually, she and Willock were having a "commitment ceremony" because New Mexico does not recognize same-sex marriages -- and asked if the company would travel to photograph it. The company said yes. Willock's partner never responded.

Instead, Willock, spoiling for a fight, filed a discrimination claim with the New Mexico Human Rights Commission, charging that Elane Photography is a "public accommodation," akin to a hotel or restaurant, that denied her its services because of her sexual orientation. The NMHRC found against Elane and ordered it to pay $6,600 in attorney fees.

But what a tangled web we weave when we undertake to regulate more and more behaviors under overlapping codifications of conflicting rights. Elaine Huguenin says she is being denied her right to the "free exercise" of religion guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution's First Amendment and a similar provision in the New Mexico Constitution. Furthermore, New Mexico's Religious Freedom Restoration Act defines "free exercise" as "an act or a refusal to act that is substantially motivated by religious belief," and forbids government from abridging that right except to "further a compelling government interest."

So New Mexico, whose marriage laws discriminate against same-sex unions, has a "compelling interest" in compelling Huguenin to provide a service she finds repugnant and others would provide? Strange.

Eugene Volokh of the UCLA School of Law thinks Huguenin can also make a "compelled speech argument": She cannot be coerced into creating expressive works, such as photographs, which express something she is uncomfortable expressing. Courts have repeatedly held that freedom of speech and the freedom not to speak are "complementary components of the broader concept of 'individual freedom of mind.'"

A New Mexico court, however, has held that Elane Photography is merely "a conduit for another's expression." But the U.S. Supreme Court (upholding the right of a person to obscure the words "Live Free or Die" on New Hampshire's license plates) has affirmed the right not to be compelled to be conduits of others' expression.

New Mexico's Supreme Court is going to sort all this out, which has been thoroughly reported and discussed by the invaluable blog The Volokh Conspiracy, where you can ponder this: In jurisdictions such as the District of Columbia and Seattle, which ban discrimination on the basis of political affiliation or ideology, would a photographer, even a Jewish photographer, be compelled to record a Nazi Party ceremony?

The Huguenin case demonstrates how advocates of tolerance become tyrannical. First, a disputed behavior, such as sexual activities between people of the same sex, is declared so personal and intimate that government should have no jurisdiction over it. Then, having won recognition of what Louis Brandeis, a pioneer of the privacy right, called "the right to be let alone," some who have benefited from this achievement assert a right not to let other people alone. It is the right to coerce anyone who disapproves of the now-protected behavior into acting as though they approve it, or at least into not acting on their disapproval.

So, in the name of tolerance, government declares intolerable individuals such as the Huguenins, who disapprove of a certain behavior but ask only to be let alone in their quiet disapproval. Perhaps advocates of gay rights should begin to restrain the bullies in their ranks.

Email George F. Will of The Washington Post at georgewill@washpost.com.

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