Gay Marriage Laws May Prevent Discrimination by Private Businesses

Jan 31, 2012

OLYMPIA, Wash. – Washington appears poised to become the seventh state in the nation to allow gay marriage. Backers say they have the votes in the legislature. The law would exempt churches that oppose same-sex marriage. But not wedding-related businesses. Attorney Steve O’Ban highlighted this recently in testimony against the proposed law.

Steve O’Ban: “There’s no protection either for a small businesswoman for example who runs say a photography business or a printing company to decline to photograph or, say, print a wedding announcements for gay weddings, for reasons of faith.”

Critics of gay marriage warn it will lead to a flurry of lawsuits alleging discrimination. But as Olympia Correspondent Austin Jenkins reports, Washington law already requires that these businesses serve same-sex couples.

Lee White is an accountant. But he’s not just a numbers guy. He’s got a creative side too. But he jokes if you get creative in accounting you go to jail. So on the weekends he moonlights as a wedding photographer.

White: “I think one of my favorites, this is of the bride and her father after the wedding.”

White shows me a picture of a bride, head nestled on her father’s shoulder. The dad is beaming. White is proud of this photo. But doesn’t take credit for it. That, he says, belongs to a higher power.

White: “God’s given me this gift of photography. This isn’t something that I developed and that I’m proud of. I’m proud that God gave me this gift.”

White is in his mid-thirties, married, with a baby on the way. He says he became a born again Christian about six years ago.

White: “Big partier in college and after college.”

Now the Bible is his guide. And he says it makes it pretty clear: same-sex relations are a sin. So I ask White, what would he do if a gay couple asked him to photograph their wedding or commitment ceremony? This is what he says he’d tell them.

White: “I can’t really do it because my conscience really wouldn’t let me. And even if I did I probably wouldn’t do a good job just because I’d feel so bad doing it that I couldn’t really focus on providing you the best pictures that you’re looking for.”

White has never been put in this position. But a Christian wedding photographer in New Mexico was back in 2006. That photographer was ultimately fined by the New Mexico Human Rights Commission. That case has become Exhibit A in Washington for some opponents of gay marriage. Republican State Representative Matt Shea is a Spokane attorney. He predicts if same-sex marriage is legalized in Washington, it will trigger a raft of discrimination complaints like the one in New Mexico.

Shea: “Homosexual marriages haven’t been happening in Washington state so now that this is a possibility that they would be happening on a regular basis, that that’s when these incidents will be coming up.”

Austin Jenkins: “And then you think that will trigger lawsuits we haven’t seen yet?”

Shea: “Exactly, exactly.”

Gay rights advocates respond that plenty of same-sex couples have been tying the knot in Washington, just not with the state’s approval. Here’s the other thing: New Mexico doesn’t allow gay marriage. The complaint against the wedding photographer was brought under New Mexico’s anti-discrimination law. Washington law also prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation - has since 2006.

Wolff: “It’s already the case that businesses in the state of Washington are not allowed to discriminate against their gay customers.”

Tobias Wolff is a law professor at the University of Pennsylvania. He also happens to represent the lesbian who brought the suit against that New Mexico wedding photographer. Wolff calls it a “red herring” to use his client’s case to argue against gay marriage.

Wolff: “These are cases about discrimination against gay people in the commercial market. They’re not cases about marriage equality.”

Since 2006, gay, lesbian and transgender individuals have filed 48 complaints with Washington’s Human Rights Commission alleging discrimination in public accommodations. Conservative activists are now lobbying for a broader exemption in the same-sex marriage bill - one that would allow people in the wedding business to opt out for religious reasons. They note Washington’s Constitution has a strong religious freedom conscience clause. But State Representative Jamie Pedersen won’t go there. The openly gay Democrat is chief sponsor of the same-sex marriage bill in the House.

Pedersen: “I mean you can draw the line in all sorts of different places, but by that logic why wouldn’t you say any restaurant could refuse to service to a gay couple?”

So where does this leave Christian wedding photographer Lee White? He says he had no idea he could be sued today for discrimination if he turned down a same-sex couple. He assumed as a sole proprietor he could pick and choose his clients. But he says there’s one thing he won’t do: compromise his faith.

White: “I have friends who are gay, but I’m not going to shoot their wedding. I’ll be friends with them and love them and serve them and pray for them.”

Jenkins: “And if the law says you have to shoot their wedding if they ask, then what do you do?”

White: “Not do weddings or find another state where I can have that freedom.”

In reality, White doesn’t expect a gay couple would ask him to shoot their wedding. But he says he can’t afford to take the risk of being sued for discrimination. I’m Austin Jenkins reporting.

Copyright 2012 Northwest News Network