A Christian photographer filed a federal lawsuit Tuesday seeking to overturn a Virginia law that would force him to take pictures at same-sex weddings under the threat of $50,000 to $100,000 fines.
At issue is the Virginia Values Act, which was signed by Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam in April and prohibits “unlawful discrimination because of” sexual orientation in “places of public accommodation.” It defines a public accommodation as “all places or businesses offering or holding out to the general public goods, services, privileges, [or] advantages.”
Virginia law permits a civil penalty of up to $50,000 against first-time violators and up to $100,000 for each subsequent violation.
The law went into effect Wednesday.
Alliance Defending Freedom filed the suit against Virginia’s attorney general and another state official on behalf of Chris Herring, who owns Chris Herring Photography.
Herring is a Christian who derives his views on marriage from the Bible, the denominational teachings of the Southern Baptist Convention, and “other Christian leaders, pastors, and theologians that Chris admires,” the suit says. His formal policy, the suit says, is “to only offer wedding photography services celebrating weddings between one man and woman and to decline any photography requests celebrating any other weddings – including those for same-sex engagements or weddings.”
The suit says the new law violates Herring’s constitutionally protected religious and free speech rights as guaranteed in the First Amendment.
“Just as Virginia cannot force atheist newspaper editors to print op-eds promoting Christianity or LGBT artists to design church-flyers condemning same-sex marriage, Virginia cannot force Chris to convey messages he objects to,” the suit says. “The First Amendment ensures each of us can choose what we say and what we celebrate, even when the government dislikes it.”
The suit says Herring will work with LGBT individuals in the other part of his business, which involves taking pictures of outdoor adventures. He also will work with LGBT photographers at a wedding of a man and a woman.
“Like most other artists, Chris creates photographs for anyone no matter who they are; he just cannot create some content for anyone no matter who they are – whether that be content promoting pollution, pornography, or certain views about marriage,” the suit says. “It’s this last editorial judgment, though, that Virginia finds objectionable – threatening to fine Chris into bankruptcy for not creating photographs and blog posts he objects to.”
ADF senior counsel Jonathan Scruggs said in a press release that artists “shouldn’t be censored, fined, or forced out of business simply for disagreeing with the government’s preferred views.”
“Because of Virginia’s new law, Chris faces an impossible choice: violate the law and risk bankruptcy, promote views against his faith, or close down,” Scruggs said. “No matter one’s views on marriage, we all lose when bureaucrats can force citizens to participate in religious ceremonies they oppose, speak messages they disagree with, and stay silent about beliefs they hold dear.”
Photo courtesy: ©Alliance Defending Freedom
Michael Foust has covered the intersection of faith and news for 20 years. His stories have appeared in Baptist Press, Christianity Today, The Christian Post, the Leaf-Chronicle, the Toronto Star and the Knoxville News-Sentinel.