On Thursday, the New Mexico Supreme Court ruled in Elane Photography v. Willcock that the First Amendment doesn’t protect a photographer’s right to decline to take pictures of a same-sex wedding against the requirements of the state’s Human Rights Act, which forbids discriminating against people on the basis of sexual orientation. This is a terrible result, for the freedom of speech and association, and for religious liberty. As I’ve argued before, even supporters of marriage equality (and equality generally) should not be blind to other violations of fundamental rights.
The New Mexico law is one of multiple state and federal “public accommodations” laws that prohibit private discrimination by companies that offer services to the public. These laws are antithetical to liberty and forbidden by the Constitution. The Supreme Court held in 1883’s Civil Rights Cases that the 14th Amendment – the provision that speaks to equal protection – doesn’t authorize Congress to legislate against discrimination by private citizens.
A hundred years later, however, the Court held that such power exists under the Commerce Clause – even where the business is confined to a single state. This is just one more instance of Commerce Clause abuse, something Cato has fought on numerous occasions, including the successful Commerce Clause challenge to Obamacare’s individual mandate.
The legislation at issue in Elane Photography didn’t come from Congress, so the question of federal power doesn’t arise. But even if a state legislature has the authority to act in a specific area, that authority can’t be exercised in a manner that violates the constitutional rights of the those subject to it. Yet the New Mexico high court disagreed with the position we took in our amicus brief and held that compelling someone to engage in artistic photography somehow doesn’t violate the freedom of speech if they aren’t forced to broadcast a government-sponsored message (for more on the inadequacy of the court’s ruling see comments by Dale Carpenter and Hans Bader).
Even if you agree with the court that New Mexico’s law doesn’t violate Elane Photography’s speech rights, however, it clearly violates the company’s freedom of association and freedom of contract – two rights which, while not explicitly named in the Constitution, are clearly implicit in our understanding of “liberty.” The right to freely associate and contract with others must include a negative right not to do so – or the right is meaningless. This isn’t a defense of bigoted business practices, but a defense of choice, and it applies across the board: I don’t like homophobia, or racism, or any other number of irrational or even deplorable attitudes, but as I said on 20/20 earlier this month, being a jerk isn’t illegal.
If a restaurant doesn’t like how you’re dressed, it has the right not to serve you. No shirt, no shoes, no service, no problem – or, at least that’s the way it should be. My property is my property and my time is my time. I have the right to sell or rent both to anyone I want – or not to, as the case may be. We don’t need a government forcing businesses to serve people because the market will do that for us: refusing customers – refusing to make a profit – over something as irrelevant as a customer’s skin color or sexual orientation is a losing business strategy.
Unfortunately, the Supreme Court has been hostile to freedom of association and contract since the 1930s, notably in the 1984 case of Roberts v. U.S. Jaycees, where the Court upheld a law that required the Jaycees, a private self-help and leadership training group, to begin admitting women, over the membership’s objections. More recently, Christian Legal Society v Martinez, (in which Cato also filed a brief), the Court ruled that a Christian student group couldn’t restrict candidacy for leadership and ministerial positions to students who shared the group’s faith. (Accordingly, Democrats apparently have to admit Republicans, PETA has to admit meat-lovers, and so forth.) In these cases, the Supreme Court, like the New Mexico court, held that the government’s interest in equality and “non-discrimination” allows it to run roughshod over individual liberties.
While the last few terms at the Court have included numerous important victories for freedom – and we may be living what I like to call the Court’s “libertarian moment” – the Court’s protection of individual liberty is patchy. The rights of criminal suspects, the religious, property owners, businesses, and many others, are all occasionally sacrificed in the name of “progress”.