Christian Photographer Challenges Northam’s ‘Wedding Cake’ Law

Suit says Virginia anti-discrimination law violates Supreme Court ruling

Gov. Ralph Northam (D., Va.) / Getty Images
• January 15, 2021 5:15 pm


A Christian photographer is challenging a Virginia law that would compel him to work at a same-sex wedding on religious-liberty grounds.

The Virginia Values Act, passed in 2020 as one of the first acts of the newly elected Democratic state legislature, prohibits discrimination in employment and public accommodations against LGBTQ customers. If a business or employer is found in violation of the law, they could face a fine of up to $100,000 per violation. Bob Updegrove filed a lawsuit through the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia alleging that the act compels him to violate his religious beliefs by forcing him to take photos for a same-sex wedding.

"The state has a responsibility to protect my religious freedom. It shouldn't be able to silence or punish me for living out and expressing my faith," Updegrove told reporters after oral arguments Friday. "It's not just my freedom at stake. It's everyone's. When the government can tell you what to do, what to say, and what to create, then we do not live in a free America."

The case invokes the Supreme Court's Masterpiece Cakeshop decision, in which the Court narrowly ruled in favor of a Colorado baker who declined to bake a wedding cake for a gay wedding because of religious objections to gay marriage.

Updegrove said he is glad to provide other services to gay couples provided they do not violate his religious beliefs. Updegrove's attorney, Jonathan Scruggs, said the law could provide a model for other state laws passed by Democratic legislatures. He described the laws as dangerous.

"Creative professionals should be free to create art consistent with their convictions without the threat of government punishment," Scruggs said. "I think that's the danger of these laws, that you see them across the country…. The Commonwealth can achieve any legitimate goal it has without violating the rights of its citizens."

The lawsuit challenges two parts of the act that compel businesses to serve customers of any sexual orientation.

"In short, the Accommodations Clause forces Bob to provide photography services for same-sex engagements or weddings and would require Bob to promote messages that violate his religious beliefs or require him to participate in religious ceremonies that violate his religious beliefs, something he cannot do," the suit states.

The suit requests that the court find that those aspects of the law violate the First Amendment and prevent any state officials from enforcing them against Updegrove.

Advocates cheered the law's passage for extending legal protections to minority communities in Virginia. The Human Rights Campaign praised the state for becoming the first in the South to enact protections for LGBTQ individuals, and Equality Virginia said the law modernized Virginia's statutes to protect people with "multiple marginalized identities."

Gov. Ralph Northam's (D.) office did not respond to a request for comment on the lawsuit, or on whether the governor is concerned that the law could be overturned in a similar decision to Masterpiece Cakeshop. Northam praised the bill when he signed it into law.

"We are building an inclusive Commonwealth where there is opportunity for everyone, and everyone is treated fairly," he said in a statement. "No longer will LGBTQ Virginians have to fear being fired, evicted, or denied service in public places because of who they are."