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Christian Photographer in Virginia Settles Lawsuit, Won’t Be Forced to Serve Same-Sex Weddings

A Christian photographer in Virginia has reached a settlement with the Commonwealth, ensuring he won’t be compelled to provide services for same-sex wedding ceremonies. 

The photographer, Bob Updegrove, had filed a lawsuit against the state over a 2020 law that expanded anti-discrimination rules to include sexual orientation and gender identity.

The settlement, reached last Friday, involves Virginia Attorney General Jason Miyares and the Virginia Office of Civil Rights. Under the agreement, they committed not to enforce the law against Bob Updegrove if he refuses, based on religious beliefs, to offer his photography services for same-sex weddings. Furthermore, they won’t prevent him from asking prospective clients whether they seek photography services for same-sex weddings or engagements.

The settlement also referenced a significant legal precedent: the United States Supreme Court decision in 303 Creative LLC v. Elenis, where the court ruled 6-3 that a website designer, Lorie Smith of 303 Creative, could not be compelled to create websites that violated her religious views under Colorado law.

Bob Updegrove was represented in this case by the Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), a conservative legal group with a history of successfully arguing First Amendment cases before the U.S. Supreme Court.

Johannes Widmalm-Delphonse, ADF Legal Counsel, emphasized that “the government can’t force Americans to say things they don’t believe.” He went on to explain that this victory is a testament to how the 303 Creative decision will protect many Americans from government censorship and coercion. The U.S. Constitution safeguards Bob Updegrove’s freedom to express his views while continuing to serve clients of all backgrounds and beliefs.

The legal battle originated from the Virginia Values Act, signed into law by then-Governor Ralph Northam, a Democrat, in April 2020. This legislation extended civil rights protections to include sexual orientation and gender identity.

Governor Northam, at the time, stated that the law “sends a strong, clear message” that Virginia is a welcoming place for all people to live, work, visit, and raise a family. The aim was to create an inclusive Commonwealth where everyone is treated fairly, ending the fear of discrimination for LGBTQ Virginians.

However, the Virginia Values Act quickly became the subject of numerous lawsuits, with church and ministry groups expressing concerns about the lack of religious protections in the new legislation.

Bob Updegrove took a stand by filing a “pre-enforcement” challenge against the Act, arguing that the law would force him to go against his belief that marriage is exclusively the union of one man and one woman.

In March 2021, U.S. District Court Judge Claude M. Hilton ruled against Updegrove, stating that he lacked the standing to sue because the Act had not been enforced against him. Judge Hilton explained that no complaints had been filed under the statute in the nearly nine months since it had become effective. He reasoned that a case or controversy does not exist when someone expresses a desire to change their previously compliant conduct to violate a new statute that no person, government, or otherwise, has ever sought to enforce.

While the litigation was ongoing, Governor Ralph Northam’s term ended, as Virginia does not allow governors to serve consecutive terms. He was succeeded by Republican Glenn Youngkin, who was elected in November 2021.

This settlement represents a balance between anti-discrimination laws and religious freedom, emphasizing the importance of upholding constitutional rights while ensuring that no one is denied services due to their sexual orientation or gender identity.

The case highlights the ongoing legal debates surrounding these issues, and it sets an important precedent for similar cases across the United States.

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