What happens when a photographer's conscience collides with political correctness.
Looking at the world through the viewfinder of a camera has certain advantages. If you know what you’re doing – and you’re good at it – you can frame the way the world looks … freeze it, for one near-eternal moment, so that within that 3 x 5 or 8 x 10 glossy border, things will always be the way you remember them, imagined them, believed them to be.
That’s why people hire photographers. Especially wedding photographers. And in New Mexico, that’s why people hire Elaine Huguenin. She has the artist’s gift for gauging not just light and shadow and nuances of color and expression, but the imagination of her clients. She knows what the people who purchase her services want to see – and looking through the viewfinder of her Canon 5D, she finds that elusive vision, and preserves it.
But, of course, such telepathy has its limits. Elaine’s artistry is itself framed by her own experiences, intuitions, beliefs. Her pictures are only worth a thousand words if those are words she can bring herself to "say" on film.
If she and those who would draw on her talents cannot, looking through that viewfinder, see eye to eye, there is no shared vision … only a clash of light and shadow.
"The one thing I knew I didn’t want to do, starting out, was weddings," Elaine says. "Then I started doing weddings, and liked it a lot." So, for three years now, weddings have been her specialty, and such is her skill that offers now come in not just from all parts of Albuquerque, where she lives, but from the farther reaches of New Mexico and from other states, as well.
"She’s got a good temperament for it," says Jon Huguenin, her husband, who handles the financial end of the family business. "It’s rewarding to see her just love what she does."
"There aren’t too many ways of making a living at the arts, vocationally," Elaine says. "This is a way to make a living. There are ways to make it just a job, but I try to make it an art. I like to be a creative person … trying to do new things. It’s a challenge to make this as creative as I can."
"The other side is basically saying, ‘You surrender your First Amendment rights at the market gate."
That doesn’t mean she embraces every opportunity that comes her way. Some, she declines for professional reasons – too many other projects, not the right equipment. And, sometimes she just finds that a job runs counter to her thoughtful Christian sensibilities.
"I don’t think anyone should be forced to shoot something they’re not comfortable shooting," she says.
One day, an e-mail request came in to Elaine’s website that stirred that discomfort:
"We are researching potential photographers for our commitment ceremony…. This is a same-gender ceremony. If you are open to helping us celebrate our day we’d like to receive pricing information. Thanks."
"As a company, we photograph traditional weddings, engagements, seniors, and several other things such as political photographs and singers’ portfolios. Thank you for your interest in our site."
"I wanted to be careful in how I worded things," she says, "to make sure I didn’t come across as rude, or mean, or anything. My natural reaction was: ‘I don’t feel right doing this,’ but I wanted to get other people’s opinion." So, she consulted with Jon, her family, friends from church. "Is this right?" she asked, explaining her feelings. "Is it biblical?" The response was unanimous, and supportive, and Elaine was content she’d handled the query appropriately.
Two months went by, and a second e-mail came in from the same woman:
"Thanks for your response of September 21. I’m a bit confused, however, by the wording of your response. Are you saying that your company does not offer your photography services to same-sex couples?"
Surprised, Elaine tried again to explain:
"Sorry if our last response was a confusing one. Yes, you are correct in saying we do not photograph same-sex weddings, but again, thanks for checking out our site!"
"I thought it was just a clarifying question," she remembers. "I answered it, and we were done. I didn’t apologize for what I said. I wanted to stand by it, but I also wanted to be polite. So, quite a lot of thought went into it.
"But it never crossed my mind that it would come back to haunt me like this."
The haunting began with a phone call, a couple of months later, from the New Mexico Human Rights Commission. "There’s been a complaint filed against you," an official told Elaine. "You need to find a lawyer, or go through mediation."
The complaint charged Elaine with violating the state’s "sexual orientation discrimination" law. By declining to photograph her commitment ceremony, the lesbian contended, Elaine was discriminating on the basis of sexual orientation – the implication being that she was no different from a white diner owner refusing to serve African-Americans at his lunch counter.
Elaine and Jon began calling lawyers – and the first to reply was Jordan Lorence from the Alliance Defense Fund. He explained that what the Huguenins were facing was typical of a growing legal persecution nationwide against Christians who decline to endorse, facilitate, or participate in workplace activities that violate their conscience or religious convictions.
Despite the opposition’s contention that the case is about "public accommodation" – that, as a businessperson, Elaine has to make her services available to anyone – Lorence says the real violation is of Elaine’s First Amendment right to submit her talent to the dictates of her own conscience.
"This is a compelled speech case," Lorence says. "As a photographer, Elaine is a communicator – she sends messages in her pictures. Here, she’s saying, ‘The message a same-sex commitment ceremony communicates is not one I believe.’ And the state is effectively saying, ‘We’ll punish you if you don’t promote this message, whether you agree with it or not.’ "
"Imagine that an atheist wants to hire a Christian writer to write a piece arguing that God doesn’t exist," he says. "That’s basically what’s going on here."
Across the country, Lorence says, there’s a move among activists to persecute and prosecute anyone who won’t be coerced into fully and openly endorsing their agenda. And common sense doesn’t dampen the desire for vengeance.
Same-sex "marriages" are not recognized in New Mexico – so the Huguenins are being punished for not endorsing something the state itself doesn’t endorse. And the lesbians themselves admit they had no trouble finding another photographer … which makes their suit nothing more than a legal swipe at Elaine for not agreeing with their beliefs.
"There’s a feeling that ‘anyone who snubs us should be punished,’" Lorence says, and in that kind of environment, cases like the one against the Huguenins are becoming common. "This whole case is a clear violation of the First Amendment, but the other side is basically saying, ‘You surrender your First Amendment rights at the market gate.’ "
Lorence told the Huguenins that ADF would take their case, give them full support, and cover all the costs of litigation. But he warned the couple that they were in for a long, hard haul.
"He said, ‘This could be big, guys,’ " Elaine remembers. "’This could go as far as the U.S. Supreme Court. Are you prepared to take it to that level?’"
It was a sobering prospect, but "We decided we’re not backing down," she says. "This is not a just thing. I’m not sorry for what I did. I’m sorry it makes [these people] mad, but I’m not sorry for the decision I made, and I’m not going to pay [them] off."
The decision was quickly complicated by the simultaneous discovery of some good news: Elaine was pregnant. Joy and surprise gave way to a growing concern – publicity about the case, a tidal wave of e-mail responses, and preparation for their upcoming hearing all added up to considerable stress for the young couple, especially Elaine.
"I was really worried that the stress might hurt the baby," she says. "But it didn’t." (Their son was born a few months after the hearing, perfectly healthy.) Still, the prospect of parenthood added other dimensions to the Huguenins’ decisions.
"It’s not just us anymore," Jon says. "We have to protect him. This case could go on for six or seven years. We didn’t want him going to first grade and having people bring this up and hold it against him, because of what his parents did or didn’t do."
"There were difficult nights and days when there were tears and frustrations, and wishing it didn’t happen," he says. "But Jordan is like Mel Gibson before the Braveheart battle. He gave us a lot of biblical parallels. He helped us to see that God picked us for a purpose, and we’re in this for a reason."
"I told them, ‘This is a big thing that’s been dropped on you,’ " Lorence says. " ’But the provision of God has come upon you, too."
"He reminded us of the verse, "You will be brought before governors and kings for My sake" (Matthew 10:18) – that we could rest in that," Jon says. "That really did help. We really are guided by the Holy Spirit as Christians, and we don’t have to rely on our own wits. We don’t have to worry.
"It doesn’t have to be my words [in that courtroom]. It’s just something we’re doing that God’s directing."
"We had asked a lot of people to be praying," Elaine says, of the days just before the hearing. "We had a couple of hundred e-mails from people, so we went in knowing there was a lot of prayer support. That really helped. I wasn’t nearly as nervous as I thought I might be."
Despite rigorous cross-examination, Elaine held unswerving to her testimony that it was the message behind the ceremony that she couldn’t, and wouldn’t, support.
"She was like a lioness on the stand," Lorence says.
"I really felt the effect of all those prayers," Elaine says. "Because I know me, and I know that naturally I wouldn’t have that kind of confidence." Jon wasn’t allowed in the courtroom, except to give his own testimony, but friends from church and some ADF Ministry Friends prayed for the couple from the back of the room. Across the country, ADF team members were praying, too.
Still, despite the Huguenins’ consistent testimony and a solid legal case, the Commission ruled against the couple three months later. ADF has already appealed the case to the New Mexico District Court.
"It was disappointing, but not surprising," Elaine says. "All the odds were lined up against us. Jordan prepared us not to expect a quick resolution."
"I’m not sorry for what I did. I’m sorry it makes [them] mad, but I’m not sorry for the decision I made."
In fact, Jon says, "We’re feeling more confident. We’re not looking forward to it, but we’re more confident. We have a really valid case. Hopefully, the judges at the next level will interpret the law and see what’s at stake."
"Jordan told us this is a precedent-setting case," Elaine says. "It might impact Christians’ right to exercise what we believe. That could affect people throughout the U.S. If we win, and someone else is confronted with this, they’ll have something to stand by.
"If we win, Christians will be able to stick by their religious values. They’ll be able to feel like they are still backed by the First Amendment. I feel like that’s really a question right now."
"This is not just about photographers," Jon says. "Any small business or artist – basically, the government could force you to do what they want you to do."
"We’d have no say in our own creativity anymore," Elaine says. "If it becomes something where Christians are made to do these things by law in one state, or two, it’s going to sweep across the whole United States … and religious freedom could become extinct."
All those possibilities loom over the future, but to Elaine, "the more immediate what’s-at-stake is our faith being tested. If we win, we can move on from this a little bit, know that we stood by our values … that we didn’t give in … that that’s what we were to do for this season of our lives."
"Being called to adversity is not a fun thing," Lorence says. "The point is not to be vindicated … to get revenge … to get money. The point is to be a witness."
"It’s been a trial, literally and figuratively," Elaine says. "It’s been something that’s brought us a lot closer to God. And although nobody in their right mind would ask for a trial, the fact that we’ve been able to grow through this has been really … encouraging."
Faith, in focus. Picture that.