A Very Human Cost for Those on the Front Lines of the Battle for Religious Liberty in America

A gay rights protester confronts protesters opposed to same-sex marriage in the halls of the Capitol in Albany, N.Y., in this 2011 photo, showing the passions the issue can ignite. (PHOTO CREDIT: Hans Pennink/AP/File)
A gay rights protester confronts protesters opposed to same-sex marriage in the halls of the Capitol in Albany, N.Y., in this 2011 photo, showing the passions the issue can ignite. (PHOTO CREDIT: Hans Pennink/AP/File)

Losing in court wasn’t the worst thing for Elaine Huguenin. The worst came after she lost.

That’s when the emails and telephone calls started.

Ms. Huguenin was co-owner with her husband of a New Mexico wedding photography business. In 2006, she was contacted by a lesbian couple and asked if she could photograph their commitment ceremony.

Huguenin, a devout Christian, declined to take the job, telling the couple that she would not photograph events or subjects that convey a message with which she disagrees – such as a same-sex commitment ceremony.

She told them that, in accord with her religious beliefs, she only photographs traditional weddings between one man and one woman. But she also told the couple she would be happy to photograph them in a non-wedding context.

The couple sued for sexual-orientation discrimination, and the photographer lost at every stage of the case. But that didn’t stop people from emailing or calling her home with abusive comments and threats against her, her husband, and their young children.

“When we lost at the appeals court, there was this outpouring of people finding her phone number, calling up and saying either horrible things or threatening violence to her,” says Jordan Lorence, a lawyer with the conservative group Alliance Defending Freedom who handled the case through seven years of litigation.

“I was thinking, ‘She’s lost, she’s not a threat, and she’d never been a threat,’ ” Mr. Lorence says. “It was totally disproportionate to what was going on in this situation.”

Huguenin is not alone. Wedding cake designers in Colorado, Oregon, and Texas, and a florist in Washington State also received death threats and other menacing communications after turning down same-sex weddings because of religious conflicts.

Similar tactics emerged during the fight over Proposition 8, which banned same-sex marriage in California. Donors to that cause were targeted for harassment, including calls for boycotts and that they should lose their jobs.

These tactics are somewhat ironic, given that lesbians, gay men, bisexuals, and transgender individuals have long been targeted for hate speech and violence.

“LGBT people are far more likely than any other minority group in the United States to be victimized by violent hate crime,” according to the Southern Poverty Law Center.

It is not clear who is making the anonymous threats. But some analysts suggest that perhaps it stems from a crude concept of payback.

“I’ve heard so many people say, ‘This is what you deserve because of the way you’ve treated us,’ ” says Denny Burk, professor of biblical studies at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville.

Professor Burk calls the phenomenon “anonymous thuggery” and acknowledges that it can take a toll beyond bills and court battles on those seeking to defend traditional beliefs.

Professor Burk, also a Southern Baptist minister, says it is essential in the face of such harassment that people of faith turn to the Scriptures to dissipate any sense of fear. It is essential, he says, that they turn to the example of Jesus.

“We need to love our neighbors. We need to love our enemies. We need to be patient and faithful,” Burk says. “And we need to pray for courage.”

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Lorence says the threats and harassment against the Huguenin family embodied a “kind of vigilante lynch mob” mentality.

“A guy threatened to burn down their house when all their family was in it and kill everybody in the house,” Lorence says. “This is after the Albuquerque newspaper reported on the front page that they had lost their case at the New Mexico Court of Appeals.”

That’s when Huguenin and her husband called the police. Nothing ever came of the report, but the experience rattled the young mother and photographer.

Huguenin declined an interview request for this story.

When she was in business, she maintained a website displaying her photographs. The website is no longer available on the Internet, and it does not appear that she is in the wedding photography business any longer.

Lorence says his client was hounded and intimidated into silence. “What has been cut off has been the outlet for Elaine Huguenin’s creative artistry as a photographer,” the lawyer said.

The most recent business to receive such threats is a Longview, Texas, bakery that turned down a request from a gay couple for a wedding cake in February.

After press reports about the refusal, Kern’s Bakery started receiving messages on its Facebook page that the shop owners characterize as “hateful and often incredibly vulgar.” The most troubling threats, according to a posting on their website, came by telephone and were directed against the owners’ lives, their home, and their business.

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SOURCE: Christian Science Monitor, Warren Richey