ORLANDO, Fla.—Emilee Carpenter, a Christian wedding photographer, had to turn to her lawyer when asked about her religious beliefs about marriage because New York law prevents her from speaking about those beliefs in conjunction with her business.
“So New York’s law is actually so severe, I think I need to pass this over to my attorney, Kellie [Fiedorek], because it actually dictates what I am and am not able to publicly say, which is part of the scare in this law,” Carpenter said when The Daily Signal asked about her views on marriage.
Carpenter and Fiedorek sat down last week with The Daily Signal at the National Religious Broadcasters Convention in Orlando to discuss the wedding photographer’s lawsuit challenging a New York law compelling her to speak in favor of same-sex weddings.
Carpenter, who is represented by Alliance Defending Freedom, filed a lawsuit challenging New York Executive Law Section 296.2(a). The law bars discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, which New York interprets as forcing commercial photographers who photograph opposite-sex weddings to offer their artistic services for same-sex weddings. The law also bars Carpenter from publishing any notice “to the effect that … the patronage … of any person … is unwelcome.”
“It is a very extreme law that does compel her speech, but also prevents her from speaking freely when it comes to what her beliefs are,” Fiedorek, the photographer’s lawyer, told The Daily Signal. She noted that Carpenter aims “to create consistent with her faith” that marriage is “between a husband and a wife, and that’s a very sacred union.”
Fiedorek denied any accusation that the photographer discriminates against anyone based on sexual orientation.
“She has clients that identify as LGBT, but there’s some messages—and marriage is one of them—that she can only create photographs and talk about that and promote it,” Fiedorek said, if it is “consistent with what her faith teaches.”
“I’d love to be able to operate my business in line with my religious convictions without the threat of government punishment,” Carpenter said. She noted that if convicted of violating New York’s human rights law, she could face a $100,000 fine (which she would have to pay personally), loss of her business, and even a year in jail.
“I serve all people,” Carpenter added. She said her refusal to lend her creative services to celebrate same-sex weddings “isn’t about the person; it’s about the message, and we are arguing that somebody should be free to choose the messages that they promote.”
“This is my speech, this is my artwork, and I want to be able to create freely,” she said.
Alliance Defensing Freedom, or ADF, represents other clients with similar stories, including one case at the Supreme Court.
The high court is weighing the case of Lorie Smith, a graphic artist who creates custom websites for weddings. Colorado law would force her to offer the same services to celebrate same-sex weddings, so she filed a lawsuit challenging the law. The court heard her case, 303 Creative v. Elenis, in December, and a ruling is expected soon.
Smith is challenging the same law that penalized Masterpiece Cakeshop owner Jack Phillips, a Colorado baker who gladly sells baked goods to all but refuses to craft custom cakes to celebrate same-sex weddings. The Supreme Court vindicated Phillips in 2018, ruling that Colorado had discriminated against him on the basis of his faith, but that decision didn’t resolve the free speech issue.
The 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has put Carpenter’s case on hold, pending the Supreme Court’s ruling in 303 Creative. Carpenter said she hopes the Supreme Court will strike down the Colorado law and order the 2nd Circuit to resolve her case in a similar manner.
Listen to the podcast below or read the lightly edited transcript:
Tyler O’Neil: This is Tyler O’Neil. I’m managing editor at The Daily Signal. I’m joined by Emilee Carpenter and her attorney Kellie Fiedorek with Alliance Defending Freedom. Emilee, you are in the middle of a very important court battle against a New York bill that would put you in danger of jail time for speaking out about your faith. First off, thank you for joining me.
Emilee Carpenter: Absolutely. Thank you for having me.
O’Neil: And can you share a little bit about your personal story—what encourages you to photograph weddings—and this horrific threat we’ve seen from New York?
Carpenter: Sure. Ultimately, I’m moving forward with this because I want to see all artists be free to choose the messages that they promote. Ultimately, this is a free speech issue, which is why I’m so passionate about moving forward with it.
I’ve been doing wedding photography now for about 10 years. It is my greatest passion. I absolutely love it. It’s what pulls me out of bed sometimes at five in the morning or earlier, if I do a sunrise shoot. And I really love it.
And ultimately, in moving forward with this, we are wanting to see the government respect my beliefs about marriage. I’d love to be able to operate my business in line with my religious convictions without the threat of government punishment, which, like you said, is very steep and severe threats and punishment: $100,000 fine, losing my business, jail time. Really scary, scary things.
And ultimately, these are things that should be protected by the Constitution. The First Amendment ensures that my speech as a creative professional, as an artist, should be protected.
O’Neil: And there are those who argue that in cases like yours and cases like Jack Phillips’, that what you are doing is essentially discrimination against people who identify a certain way. How do you respond to that kind of claim?
Carpenter: Well, I serve all people. And I think the fundamental difference with that idea is that this isn’t about the person. It’s about the message. And we are arguing that somebody should be free to choose the messages that they promote. I don’t want to be censored by the government. This is my speech, this is my artwork, and I want to be able to create freely.
And it’s honestly so much broader than me, because I would want the same freedom extended to even those who differ from me. So ultimately, because we live in such a diverse society, freedom is a two-way street. I want freedom for those even who disagree with me. This is extended to all artists of all walks of life.
O’Neil: And what is the status of your case right now?
Kellie Fiedorek: So, we argued Emilee’s case last fall at the 2nd Circuit, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit, and they said they’re going to put the case on hold pending what the U.S. Supreme Court decides in Lorie Smith’s case, 303 Creative. So we should be getting a decision from the court really any time now, between now and the end of June.
And we’re hopeful the Supreme Court will affirm that artists, that all Americans have the freedom to speak freely; they can say what they believe without fear of government punishment. And we’re hopeful this broad ruling will also then help Emilee in her case, so that in New York, New York will also be required to respect her freedom of speech.
O’Neil: Are there any other messages that you’re afraid that this law or similar laws would force you to convey against your convictions?
Carpenter: Certainly, there’s loads of things that I would or would not want to portray. And again, when I’m accepting certain clients, it’s not based on who they are or how they identify, it is strictly based off the message. In the same way I wouldn’t want to convey certain messages about marriage, I also would not want to endorse racism or condone violence. There’s many, many things.
Ultimately, my faith is the lens through which I view my artwork and how I choose to accept different projects. So I really am surveying and assessing each client based on my religious convictions and the message that it’s condoning.
O’Neil: And what are your religious convictions regarding marriage? I mean, I’m sitting next to you, along with your second child, congratulations, and I imagine it’s very personal to you, but also, what are the religious implications of marriage?
Carpenter: So, New York’s law is actually so severe, I think I need to pass this over to my attorney, Kellie, because it actually dictates what I am and I’m not able to publicly say, which is part of the scare in this law.
Fiedorek: It is a very extreme law that does compel her speech, but also prevents her from speaking freely when it comes to what her beliefs are. But her beliefs are to create, consistent with her faith, and her faith teaches that marriage is a special relationship. God’s design for marriage, it’s between a husband and a wife, and that’s a very sacred union, a very sacred relationship. And so when she tells love stories, she wants to tell love stories that are consistent with what her faith teaches her is marriage.
And as she mentioned, she serves everyone. She has clients and photographs clients that identify as LGBT, but there’s some messages—and marriage is one of them—that she can only create photographs and talk about that and promote it and celebrate marriage that goes consistent with what her faith teaches her as such a sacred union.
O’Neil: Yeah, no, that stands to reason. And I know many Christians, in referencing the Bible, that marriage is often viewed as a symbol of the union between Christ and the church. People like to think of this as a political issue, but I think there’s something really theological behind it.
Fiedorek: Absolutely. And I think that’s certainly very true for Emilee. Emilee’s been married now, just celebrated her fourth anniversary with her husband Jon. And she and our client Jack Phillips, our client Lorie Smith, they all see marriage as that sacred union and it does—it reflects the union between Christ and his church.
And that’s something that’s beautiful, that’s sacred, and that they want to be able to be free from government punishment to promote messages and custom artwork that’s consistent with that belief.
O’Neil: Yeah. Well, is there anything else about your case that I don’t think we’ve touched on? Those fines that New York would impose, would those be like a case-by-case or recurring?
Fiedorek: The fines and the censorship and the possible jail time is per violation of the law, so it could get steep very quickly if you’re able to fine someone $100,000 every time you believe that they violate the law. So there’s really a lot of writing on this.
And it doesn’t have to be this way. New York does not need to be forcing and misusing its law to censor Emilee’s speech. It should allow her to create freely. And many states are able to enforce their public accommodation laws and ensure everyone has access to essential goods and services and still respect the First Amendment.
So it doesn’t need to do this, especially for someone like Emilee, who does serve everyone. There’s just certain messages that she can’t promote. And that’s true for any artist. Whether you agree with Emilee’s beliefs about marriage or have other beliefs, all of us as Americans should be free to say what we believe without fear of government punishment.
O’Neil: And I’ve heard some very personal stories. Barronelle Stutzman speaks about a man she served multiple times, giving him flowers that he would give to his same-sex partner. Are there any personal relationships or stories that you’ve worked with people that might request this message you could not serve, but you are glad to serve and have great experiences serving in other ways?
Carpenter: Absolutely. Yeah. I have many friends and family members who identify as gay or within the LGBT community, and I’m happy to work with any, it’s just certain messages that I’m not wanting to promote.
And that does make it a very delicate situation to navigate because you are wanting to live out your faith and be true to the values you hold, while also still respecting people who land on the other side of the aisle as you on whatever the issue may be.
And I think that’s really what’s at stake here, is wanting to have respect and tolerance be upheld and be the priority even with somebody who disagrees with you. And that’s really the beauty, I think, of living in a free and diverse society, is being able to coexist with people and still have a flourishing marketplace even when you disagree with other people.
So really, whether you identify as religious or non-religious, I think there’s something beautiful to be said about respecting the other person. And that’s what we’re wanting to see the government do in my instance, to respect my beliefs about marriage so that I can operate my business in line with my religious convictions, not with the fear of censorship or government punishment. Ultimately, that I can choose the messages that I want to promote.
O’Neil: Well, that’s a very important stance, an important message to get out there. Is there anything else you guys would like to add?
Fiedorek: I’ll just say that free speech is for everyone and it’s essential to a peaceful and to a pluralistic society, like Emilee just mentioned.
And all of us in America, we should really care what’s happening in these cases, in 303 Creative and in Emilee Carpenter’s case, because at stake is the freedom of all of us and the future of whether America will remain a nation where we can have civil discourse, we can have civil dialogue, we can respect one another, and disagree with that tolerance, with that respect for everyone. And ultimately, a win in Emilee’s case would truly be a win for all Americans.
O’Neil: And many have suggested that Alliance Defending Freedom is a powerful organization, that conservative Christians appear to have power in our country, and therefore people on the Left suggest that cases like yours, they like to frame it as conservatives wielding power over other people. And it seems to be the exact opposite to me. I’m looking across from you. I mean, would you have to close your business if you face these fines? What would happen here?
Carpenter: Yeah, you’re in a pretty vulnerable position. I mean, not only are you up against those steep fines, but it’s also my reputation that’s on the line. I am a wife, I’m a mom of two little kids, and you are in a very vulnerable position.
I can remember, even when I was delivering my son, my phone was getting blown up with ongoing media and PR. You feel very exposed when your name is being all over the online web. But even though it comes at a human cost, this is such an important thing because it extends beyond myself. This is something that all creative professionals should have confidence that their speech is protected, that they can create messages that are consistent with their core beliefs.
Because ultimately, that’s all I am wanting. I’m wanting to have the freedom to choose these messages. Again, it’s not about the person, and I serve everybody. It’s just certain messages that I’m not at liberty to create because of my religious convictions.
O’Neil: Well, thank you so much, Emilee and Kellie. Where can people follow you and support the important legal work?
Fiedorek: Well, you can learn more about Emilee’s case if you go to adflegal.org. We have information about Emilee Carpenter and some of the other courageous clients who are standing up for free speech for everybody.
O’Neil: And where can we find your website and where you do your photography?
Carpenter: Yeah. My website is EmileeCarpenter.com.
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