NORFOLK, Va. — A Christian photographer has filed suit to challenge the new so-called “Virginia Values Act”, which by effect would prohibit him from declining to participate in same-sex engagement or wedding photo shoots.
Chris Herring, a seminary student who seeks to “combine his photography skills and entrepreneurial spirit with his desire to teach others about God and His creation,” lodged a pre-enforcement challenge on Tuesday, meaning that he has not yet been accused of violating the law but fears he will be.
“Chris believes that he cannot rejoice in, condone, participate in, celebrate, or promote anything dishonorable to God. (Isaiah 5:20; Ephesians 5:1-14; 1 Timothy 5:22; 1 Corinthians 10:1-22; 2 Corinthians 6:14-18),” the lawsuit states.
“Chris creates photographs for anyone no matter who they are; he just cannot create some content for anyone no matter who they are — whether that be content promoting pollution, pornography, or certain views about marriage,” it outlines, noting that he has no issue working with homosexual clients for other projects.
Herring, who operates Chris Herring Photography in the Hampton Roads area, says he will also not promote racism, vulgarity, drugs, sexually explicit content, or anything else that violates biblical principles through his photography services.
He states that he would reject various themed engagement or wedding shoots that include elements such as vampires or superheroes, because he believes marriage is a sacred institution with God at the center and is innately religious.
Since Herring would be an active participant in the same-sex wedding, he could not personally accept the job if approached. He states that in such instances where he cannot assist, he provides referrals to other potential photographers.
However, the recent Virginia Values Act, which became law on July 1 after being signed by Gov. Ralph Northam in April, contains an accommodation clause that makes it illegal for “any person … to refuse, withhold from, or deny any individual, or to attempt to refuse, withhold from, or deny any individual, directly or indirectly, any of the accommodations, advantages, facilities, services, or privileges made available in any place of public accommodation,” on the basis of “sexual orientation.”
A publication clause also prohibits places of public accommodation from publishing any notices that would advise that a service would be “refused, withheld from, or denied to any individual on the basis of … sexual orientation.”
Complaints against violators may be filed with the state Division of Human Rights, which may result in a financial penalty “not exceeding $50,000 for a first violation” and “not exceeding $100,000 for any subsequent violation,” as well as “compensatory damages and punitive damages” and “reasonable attorney fees and costs.”
Herring is therefore concerned that his business would be adversely affected by this new law, and that it will force him to choose between his following his Christian convictions or risking a possible lawsuit and fines, potentially bankrupting his small business.
“Chris faces an impossible choice: violate the law and risk bankruptcy, promote views against his faith, or close down,” his complaint 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.”
Herring seeks an injunction against the enforcement of the accommodation and publication clauses, as well as a declaration that they violate the First Amendment to the United States Constitution.
“Artists shouldn’t be censored, fined, or forced out of business simply for disagreeing with the government’s preferred views,” remarked Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) Senior Counsel Jonathan Scruggs, who is representing Herring in court. “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.”