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Supreme Court declines case of photographer who denied service to gay couple

The Supreme Court turned away several cases on controversial issues Monday. Besides the photographer’s case, it declined to hear challenges to lethal execution methods and the NSA’s phone data collection. (Karen Bleier/AFP/Getty Images)

The Supreme Court declined on Monday to consider whether a New Mexico photographer had a right to refuse service to a same-sex couple who wanted her to record their commitment ceremony.

Without comment, the court said it would not review a decision by the New Mexico Supreme Court that the denial of service violated the state’s public accommodations law, which bans discrimination by those offering their services to the public.

The justices Monday turned aside several requests that they hear controversial issues. Also among them: the manner in which executions are carried out and the National Security Agency’s collection of bulk telephone records. Last week, the court fueled a national debate on campaign finance laws with a contentious ruling that struck down the overall limit on how much a donor can contribute to political candidates and parties.

The New Mexico case prompted some states, such as Arizona, to propose laws that would protect companies and individuals who say providing some services to same-sex couples would violate their religious beliefs.

The case at the court came from Elaine and Jonathan Huguenin, whose company, Elane Photography, refused service for the 2007 commitment ceremony of a lesbian couple, Vanessa Willock and Misti Collinsworth.

The Huguenins said that they would “gladly serve gays and lesbians” by taking portraits. But photographing same-sex marriages or commitment ceremonies would “require them to create expression conveying messages that conflict with their religious beliefs,” according to their petition to the court.

The state human rights commission found that the Huguenins violated the New Mexico Human Rights Act, and the state Supreme Court unanimously upheld the decision.

“When Elane Photography refused to photograph a same-sex commitment ceremony, it violated the NMHRA in the same way as if it had refused to photograph a wedding between people of different races,” the court said.

In their petition, the Huguenins and lawyer Jordan W. Lorence of the Alliance Defending Freedom mentioned religion frequently. But their plea did not cite constitutional protection of their right to freely exercise their religion. Instead, they relied on another part of the First Amendment: their right to free speech.

Elaine Huguenin’s work is artistic expression, the petition said, and she cannot be forced to “communicate messages antithethical to her religious beliefs . . . through government coercion.”

Tobias B. Wolff, a University of Pennsylvania law professor representing Willock, pointed out in his brief that the Huguenins acknowledged that courts were not split on the questions they raised, normally a prerequisite for Supreme Court action. He said the issue was a simple one: “Whatever service you provide, you must not discriminate against customers when you engage in public commerce.”

At the time of Willock’s attempt to hire Huguenin, same-sex marriage was not available in New Mexico. The state is now one of 17 where it is legal.

Since the Supreme Court’s ruling in U.S. v. Windsor , striking down a part of the Defense of Marriage Act that defined marriage as a union between only a man and a woman, federal judges across the country have ruled against similar bans at the state level.

As a result, some states have proposed or enacted legislation aimed at protecting those who do not want to offer their marriage services to same-sex couples because they say it would violate their religious beliefs. The controversy came to a head in Arizona, where Gov. Jan Brewer (R) vetoed legislation that the state’s business community and others said was seen as a license to discriminate.

The case at the Supreme Court was Elane Photography v. Willock.

The court also passed up a chance to weigh in on an issue that has prompted lawsuits across the country: the controversy involving drugs used in lethal injections.

A case from Louisiana was brought by Christopher Sepulvado, who is on death row after being convicted of killing his 6-year-old stepson. He said the state must tell him how it intended to carry out his execution, so that he could object if he thought the drug protocol would violate the Constitution’s protection against cruel and unusual punishment. Lower courts disagreed.

The justices last week declined to halt a Texas execution after the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit refused the inmate’s demand that he be told where the state received the lethal-injection drugs planned for him.

The Louisiana case is Sepulvado v. Jindal.

And as expected, the court turned aside a request from conservative lawyer Larry Klayman that it accept his constitutional challenge to the NSA’s bulk collection of telephone records.

A federal district judge agreed with Klayman that the agency probably violated constitutional protections against unreasonable searches. The issue is now before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit.

Klayman told the high court that the issue was too important to wait for the appeals court. But the justices rarely grant requests to bypass the appeals courts.

The case is Klayman v. Obama.

Robert Barnes has been a Washington Post reporter and editor since 1987. He has covered the Supreme Court since November 2006.

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