Saturday, January 23, 2021 : By Nathan Skates
A Virginia photographer’s lawsuit challenging the Virginia Values Act is moving forward. His lawyers have asked a federal district court to halt the enforcement of the law while his case proceeds.
Photographer Bob Updegrove has filed a lawsuit challenging the Virginia Values Act, claiming it requires him to violate his religious beliefs. Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) is representing Updegrove. As a business owner, he claims that he does not discriminate against people based on sexual orientation or gender identity, as he will provide his services to anyone. However, he says he will not create art that violates his religious convictions such as photographing a homosexual wedding. Under the law, Updegrove is not allowed to communicate on his website the reasons why he only photographs heterosexual, monogamous weddings. If he uses that language, Updegrove would be subject to fines of up to $100,000 and could be sued for damages because such communications are labeled as discriminatory.
At a hearing last week, Updegrove’s lawyers requested that the court stop the enforcement of the law, which went into effect on July 1, 2020, while his lawsuit proceeds. Updegrove is not the only photographer to file a suit. Wedding photographer Chris Herring previously sued over the law but has since dropped his suit, deciding instead to move out of the state.
ADF attorney Jonathan Scruggs said,
“Photographers, like all other Americans, should be free to peacefully live, work, and create art that’s consistent with their deeply held beliefs — without the fear of government punishment.” … Because of the state’s interpretation of its law, photographers like Bob face an impossible choice: violate the law and risk bankruptcy, promote views against their faith, or close down. Virginia has a long and important history of protecting constitutional freedoms, and this kind of government hostility toward people of faith has no place in a free society.”
The law prohibits Updegrove from explaining on his website that his religious convictions prevent him from photographing any wedding that is not between one man and one woman. Initial violations of the law carry a fine of up to $50,000, with additional violations reaching up to $100,000.
Updegrove said the lawmakers “call views like mine bigotry, and want to punish me and remove me from the public square.” He added, “I serve customers no matter who they are,” the photographer said. “But the government oversteps when it attempts to force me to promote views I disagree with.”
Others have taken action against the law. In the case of Calvary Road Baptist Church v. Herring, two churches, three schools, and a pregnancy center network are suing to challenge the law because it requires them to hire employees whose views contradict the mission of the organization.
More than 40 churches, private schools, Christian-owned businesses, and faith-based ministries and charities sent a letter to Gov. Ralph Northam voicing support for religious liberty, saying that the law will require people to violate their beliefs. Their letter states,
“We, the undersigned religious organizations and ministries, urge you to refuse to enforce the so-called Virginia Values Act in a way that would force Virginians of faith to violate their consciences…. Applying this new law against faith-based entities is antithetical to the foundational belief in religious freedom that the Commonwealth was built upon…. Everyone should be free to live and work according to their beliefs without fear of unjust government punishment — regardless of whether those beliefs are religious. Our government should protect, not threaten, this freedom.”
The Virginia Constitution states,
“That religion or the duty which we owe to our Creator, and the manner of discharging it, can be directed only by reason and conviction, not by force or violence; and, therefore, all men are equally entitled to the free exercise of religion, according to the dictates of conscience.”
The Virginia Values Act seeks to force religious Virginians to violate their consciences. Another law that went into effect on the same day as the Virginia Values Act “requires churches and religious businesses to include in their health care plans coverage for elective body-altering gender surgeries and bans them from offering sports, parenting classes, and Christian discipleship should they be based on the belief that biological sex is an immutable trait.”
As James Madison, the father of the Constitution, argued, religious belief is not something that is simply tolerated by government; in fact, government has no say over a person’s religious beliefs because it is a right granted by God, not man. Religious belief, he said, “must be left to the conviction and conscience of every man,” because it depends on “the evidence contemplated by their own minds” and “cannot follow the dictates of other men.” Further, Madison stated that religious belief is “precedent, both in order of time and in degree of obligation,” to all other claims of a civil society.
By passing these two laws, Virginia legislators and Gov. Northam have declared war on religious freedom and directly violated the Virginia Constitution and the U.S. Constitution. They have sought to decide for their constituents what their “values” should be, in effect, coercing all citizens through the power of the state to adhere to what is essentially a government-established set of secular-religious beliefs.
And yet, if no judicial relief is granted, Updegrove could be fined and sued simply for posting his beliefs on his own website and religious Virginians could be forced to adopt the beliefs of politicians rather than their own.
It is heartening that this case has been taken up by the courts and, hopefully, judges who hear this case will rule in favor of the clear and time-tested foundational freedoms outlined in both the Virginia and the U.S. Constitutions rather than with the prevailing political winds. For as Updegrove has stated, “If the government can tell you what to do, what to say, and what to create, then we do not live in a free America.”