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Virginia Wedding Photographer Challenges Attack on Artistic Freedom

Attorneys representing a Virginia adventure and wedding photographer and blogger filed suit in federal court Tuesday to challenge a new state law going into effect tomorrow that forces him to use his artistic talents to promote same-sex weddings in his photographs and blogs if he photographs and blogs about weddings between one man and one woman.

The Virginia Values Act also forbids Chris Herring and his studio, Chris Herring Photography, from publicly explaining on his studio’s own website the religious reasons why he only celebrates wedding ceremonies between one man and one woman.

Virginia considers such communications “discriminatory” on the basis of sexual orientation. The new law threatens initial fines of up to $50,000 and then $100,000 per additional violation along with court orders that could force Herring to create photographs and blogs against his conscience if he wants to stay in business.

“Artists shouldn’t be censored, fined, or forced out of business simply for disagreeing with the government’s preferred views,” said Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) Senior Counsel Jonathan Scruggs, director of the ADF Center for Conscience Initiatives. “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. 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.”

The lawsuit is known in legal circles as a “pre-enforcement challenge,” which allows citizens to challenge a law that threatens their rights before the government enforces it against them. Last year, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 8th Circuit and the Arizona Supreme Court ruled in favor of filmmakers and artists who brought similar pre-enforcement challenges against laws like Virginia’s. ADF attorneys are asking the court to halt enforcement of the law against Herring and his business while his lawsuit proceeds.

“It isn’t the state’s job to tell me what I must capture on film or publish on my website,” said Herring. “My religious beliefs influence every aspect of my life, including the stories I tell through my photography. If you’re looking for someone to photograph a red-light district or promote drug tourism, I’m not your guy. Now Virginia is trying to intimidate creative professionals like me to change some of my other religious beliefs. I happily work with and serve all customers, but I can’t and won’t let the state force me to express messages that contradict my beliefs.”

The complaint in Chris Herring Photography v. Herring, which ADF attorneys filed in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia, explains how the state law violates various provisions of the U.S. Constitution, including the First Amendment’s Free Speech and Free Exercise clauses. Specifically, the lawsuit challenges Va. Code § 2.2-3904(B), which forces Herring to participate in and to create photographs and blogs promoting same-sex wedding ceremonies—all because he does the same to celebrate weddings between a man and a woman.

The complaint also notes that there are over 800 photographers in Virginia who will photograph same-sex weddings and many who will celebrate same-sex marriage on their social media sites, blogs, and websites. Herring seeks the same artistic freedom as these other photographers.

Alliance Defending Freedom is an alliance-building, non-profit legal organization that advocates for the right of people to freely live out their faith.

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