Wedding Photographer Files Federal Lawsuit Against Va. Nondiscrimination Law

A Norfolk wedding photographer has filed a federal lawsuit against Virginia's new anti-LGBTQ discrimination law.

The lawsuit, which the Alliance Defending Freedom, an anti-LGBTQ legal group, filed in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia in Norfolk on June 30 alleges the Virginia Values Act violates Chris Herring's First Amendment rights because it "requires Chris to promote content he disagrees with — to create and convey photographs and blogs celebrating same-sex weddings because he does so for weddings between a man and a woman."

"The law even makes it illegal for Chris to hold a policy of photographing and blogging about weddings only between a man and woman or to post internet statements explaining his religious reasons for only creating this wedding content," reads the lawsuit.

The lawsuit states the Virginia Values Act "subjects him to investigations, onerous administrative processes, multiple lawsuits, fines up to $50,000 initially and then $100,000 per additional violation, plus unlimited damages and attorney-fee awards, and court orders forcing him to create photographs and blogs against his conscience." The lawsuit also alleges the Virginia Values Act could "ruin Chris financially, and make operating his business impossible."

"So, Chris faces an impossible choice: Violate the law and risk bankruptcy, promote views against his faith or close down," it reads. "And this was exactly what Virginia officials wanted for those who hold Chris' religious beliefs about marriage. Legislators who passed Virginia's law called views like Chris' 'bigotry' and sought to punish them with 'unlimited punitive damages' to remove them from the public square."

The lawsuit names Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring and R. Thomas Payne II, director of the Virginia Division of Human Rights and Fair Housing, as defendants.

The Virginian-Pilot newspaper reported Chris Herring in an Alliance Defending Freedom Press release that announced his lawsuit said it is not "the state's job to tell me what I must capture on film or publish on my website."

"My religious beliefs influence every aspect of my life, including the stories I tell through my photography," he said. "If you're looking for someone to photograph a red-light district or promote drug tourism, I'm not your guy. … 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 Virginia Values Act took effect on July 1. Virginia is the first Southern state to include sexual orientation and gender identity in its statewide nondiscrimination law.

Vee Lamneck, executive director of Equality Virginia, a statewide LGBTQ advocacy group, on Tuesday defended the law.

"The Virginia Values Act ensures that LGBTQ people are treated fairly and equitably in the state and have the opportunity to earn a living, access housing and healthcare, and participate fully in society," they told the Washington Blade in a statement in response to Chris Herring's lawsuit.

"Additionally, the law provides critical civil rights protections for people of color, women, veterans, and people of faith," added Lamneck. "That means, if Chris Herring has opened his services to the public, he must provide the same services to everyone. In the Masterpiece Cakeshop case, the Supreme Court reaffirmed 50-year-old precedent that religious objections do not provide an exemption to nondiscrimination requirements."

Charlotte Gomer, a spokesperson for Mark Herring's office, told the Blade her office is "reviewing the complaint and we'll respond in court."

"Attorney General Herring believes that every Virginian has the right to be safe and free from discrimination no matter what they look like, where they come from, or who they love," said Gomer. "LGBT Virginians are finally protected from housing and employment discrimination under Virginia law and Attorney General Herring looks forward to defending the Virginia Values Act in court against these attacks."

This article originally appeared in the Washington Blade and is made available in partnership with the National LGBT Media Association.