Christian Photographer Files Lawsuit Against NY Nondiscrimination Law

Woman faces steep fines for religious writings on her company site

New York attorney general Letitia James (Photo by Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images)
April 8, 2021

A New York wedding photographer is taking Gov. Andrew Cuomo's (D.) administration to court over state laws that threaten her with fines and jail time for her religious beliefs about marriage.

Emilee Carpenter filed a lawsuit against New York attorney general Letitia James (D.) over state nondiscrimination statutes that Carpenter said compel her to violate her religious beliefs about traditional marriage by making her publicize photos of same-sex weddings on her website. The laws require her to create photograph collections on her website celebrating same-sex weddings because she celebrates opposite-sex weddings. Violating the laws could result in tens of thousands of dollars in fines, the state taking away her business license, or even jail time.

The statutes also forbid Carpenter from publishing any sort of editorial stance explaining her religious beliefs about marriage on her website. Carpenter said in an interview that her beliefs are inseparable from her work as a wedding photographer and that the laws are violating her First Amendment rights.

"My faith has been really integral to me as a person but also to my business and the way I operate it and the artwork I create," Carpenter said. "My faith is really the lens through which I view my art."

"Essentially the only options New York state has left me are to violate my faith, violate the law, or to close down my business," she said. "All artists should be free to choose the messages they promote."

The lawsuit, filed in a district court in New York, seeks to have the court declare that the nondiscrimination laws are unconstitutionally vague and violate First and Fourteenth Amendment rights.

"These laws do not simply dictate what [Carpenter] does; they dictate what she says," the lawsuit states. "Emilee is already willing to work with clients no matter who they are, including those in the LGBT community. But not satisfied with equal treatment, New York officials demand ideological purity—that Emilee violate her conscience by professing the state’s approved view about marriage."

The legal clash comes as courts reckon with tensions between expanding nondiscrimination law and the rights of religious believers. James's office did not respond to a request for comment on the lawsuit.

Carpenter's attorney, Alliance Defending Freedom senior counsel Jonathan Scruggs, said that courts have consistently ruled in favor of protecting conscience rights and free expression. Other court decisions, such as the Masterpiece Cakeshop case, an Eighth Circuit Court ruling in favor of a Minnesota video company, and an Arizona state Supreme Court ruling in favor of a local art studio, all bode well for Carpenter's suit. In those cases, the courts came down on the side of free speech.

"The First Amendment protects people on all sides. It should protect the LGBT artist for the same reason it should protect Emilee. These freedoms go both ways," Scruggs said.

Both Scruggs and Carpenter said that Carpenter's wedding photography is a business that requires her to reflect her beliefs about the institution.

"She doesn't just go, hit a few buttons, and leave. She's there encouraging, celebrating, promoting the wedding as most good wedding photographers do," Scruggs said. "So to force someone to actively engage in a ceremony that millions of Americans consider sacred, to be there, participate, testify to something you disagree with, that really is a core violation of someone's conscience."

Governor Cuomo's office also did not respond to a request for comment on the laws.