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A push to help gay couples find wedding joy – without rejection

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Gay couples worry about rejection when they search for wedding vendors. A new suite of businesses is growing to serve them – and head off conflict. Part 7 of seven.

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    Cindy Brown photographs a bride in Charleston, S.C.
    Courtesy of Sharon McMahon
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When Cindy Brown and her partner were considering starting a photography business in suburban Atlanta, they wanted to cut through any public confusion about the purpose of their enterprise. 

So they named their company: “Cindy and Sharon, Same-Sex Wedding Photographers.”

“We know people are really concerned when they choose a wedding photographer that they get somebody they’ll feel comfortable with,” Ms. Brown said in a telephone interview.

That’s why she puts it right out there in the business’s name, taking all the guesswork out of the hiring process. Hers is a photography firm that absolutely, positively specializes in creating memorable images of gay men, lesbians, and transgender individuals in the act of becoming husband and husband, wife and wife, or husband and wife.

Brown’s same-sex wedding photography business is the flip side of the continuing controversy over religious wedding vendors who are asking to be excused from serving same-sex weddings.

Such refusals have led to discrimination lawsuits against business owners who have declined to design wedding cakes, arrange flowers, and photograph same-sex weddings or commitment ceremonies.

The cases, arising in the 22 states that have passed laws that bar discrimination based on sexual orientation, mark the front lines of an escalating culture war. Religious conservatives seeking to live their lives and conduct their businesses in accord with traditional views of marriage and sexual morality are pitted against same-sex couples seeking to live their lives as full and equal citizens in America.

The challenge is how to facilitate both communities simultaneously.

In states like Mississippi, with no antidiscrimination law, gay rights advocates launched a campaign to encourage LGBT-friendly companies to display a sticker on their door or front window. The sticker announces: “We don’t discriminate: If you’re buying, we’re selling.”

A window sticker on a downtown Indianapolis florist shows support for the gay community in this 2015 photo. Michael Conroy/AP/File

It isn’t considered a solution to the problem of anti-LGBT discrimination, but it does help protect same-sex couples and others from the indignity of being denied service in a public business.

“As a lesbian in Jackson [Mississippi], most of the time I’m fine,” says Brooke McCarthy, a lawyer in the Mississippi office of the Southern Poverty Law Center.

“Being gay in Jackson, it doesn’t matter. Folks don’t actually care on a day to day basis,” she says. “I’ve had very few negative interactions.”

But outside the state capital, some rural towns only have one florist or one bakery, she says. Refusal of service in those places would pose a logistical problem beyond the humiliation of being denied service, she says.  

Other suggested approaches include:

  • Designating someone on the staff who does not have a religious objection to fill orders that conflict with the owner’s religious beliefs.
  • Making a formal arrangement with another shop to subcontract orders that conflict with an owner’s religious beliefs.
  • Instead of offering wedding-related services to the public, handle weddings on a private contract basis through word of mouth referrals or through arrangements with local churches or other places of worship.

•  •  •

But many advocates for the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) community take a firmer line. They insist that if conservative religious business owners can’t serve every customer equally they should find new work.

“That is the option that is increasingly being offered. They don’t have to be a marriage counselor, or baker, or wedding photographer,” says Steven Smith, a professor at the University of San Diego Law School and co-executive director of the Institute for Law and Religion.

“There is logic to that position,” Professor Smith says. “If somebody wants to enter the public marketplace they need to offer their services to anybody and check their religion at the door.”

But Smith argues that approach is inconsistent with America’s tradition of religious freedom.

“I think we would like to have a public marketplace that is inclusive in the same sense that people can participate in it without having to check their most fundamental values before they enter.”

Brown, the same-sex wedding photographer, admits that the issue is a touchy one and can be viewed from many different perspectives. For her, one of the key issues is: Who gets to decide?

It should be up to the would-be customer to choose whether or not to do business with a conservative religious photographer, not the other way around, Brown says.

Yet there is a reliable way for photographers who are religious conservatives to be excused from photographing same-sex weddings against their will, she suggests.

“If I go to a photographer and want them to photograph my wedding, they should be willing to serve me,” Brown says. “Now if the photographer tells me I am not going to be able to do my best job photographing you but I am willing to do it anyway, then it is up to me [the customer] to decide whether I really want that person [at my wedding].”

She adds: “Most of the people I interact with would choose not to have that person photograph their wedding. But I do believe it should be the choice of the couple.”

Brown says it is not true that same-sex couples are eager to sue someone who does not want to provide services for their wedding. 

“I don’t know what percentage, but there are a lot of couples who just wouldn’t want to deal with somebody who didn’t want to work with them,” she says.

But how would she feel if hired to photograph an event she found personally offensive?

For example, what if she was asked to videotape a Santeria wedding service that included multiple animal sacrifices? Should a photographer who objects to recording and celebrating such a ceremony nonetheless be required to take the job?

In answering the question, Brown relies on her background as a former news photographer. News reporters and news photographers learn to put their personal views and beliefs aside and to report stories even when they strongly disagree with the subject matter of the story.

“I have been a member of PETA. I am a vegetarian,” Brown says. “But personally, I am also a documentary photographer and was a photojournalist for a long time. I would photograph the [Santeria ceremony] even though what was happening there was something that I did not agree with.”

Brown also has a fallback position. “If I was a photographer who didn’t want to do [the job], then I would accept the job and I would tell the client that someone else who works for my company is going to be the person who photographs the sacrifice.”

By contrast, the owner of Loving Image Videography, a gay-friendly company that makes video recordings of weddings, including same-sex weddings, says she would refuse the job.

“I am a big animal rights person so I just can’t even imagine a planet where animal sacrifices are part of a religious ceremony,” says the owner of the Albuquerque, N.M., business, who declines to offer her name. “I can’t even imagine that. So I would not film it myself and I believe the rights of animals precede the rights of any religious ceremony.”

She is asked whether her refusal to record a Santeria wedding was similar to a conservative religious photographer’s refusal to photograph a same-sex wedding.

“When two gay people hook up together they are not hurting anybody,” she says. In contrast, a wedding with animal sacrifices would be “cruel and unusual punishment to an animal.”

•  •  •

In the effort to help members of the LGBT community direct their business to friendly merchants and avoid humiliating rejections, various listing services have been set up.

Both Loving Image Videography and Cindy and Sharon, Same-Sex Wedding Photographers, are listed on an Internet service called Purple Unions.

The California-based website was founded in 2002 by J. Scott Coatsworth and Marco Guzman. The couple has been together for 24 years. They were married in 2008.

The service lists over 1,900 gay-friendly businesses throughout the US. Some are gay- or lesbian-owned.

“The site was our way of providing a way for vendors who wanted to help same-sex couples connect with those couples,” Mr. Coatsworth said in an email. “The last thing you want at your wedding is a homophobic vendor.”

Coatsworth offers time-tested advice for same-sex couples seeking to navigate the wedding industry.  “If you want a big, elaborate wedding, find a wedding planner who is gay friendly and knows the ins and outs of dealing with same-sex couples and their often complicated family dynamics,” he says.

“For a smaller event, find a good officiate who will do the same. These folks are usually very affordable, and know the ins and outs of the law and many of the great places to get married,” Coatsworth adds.

Does he think wedding vendors who are religious conservatives should be able to opt out of same-sex weddings?

“This is a tricky one,” he says. “I wholeheartedly believe ministers and churches should never be forced to perform same-sex weddings. But with for-profit businesses, there’s a different standard. Let’s say a baker says, ‘I shouldn’t have to make a wedding cake for a gay couple.’ Here’s how I look at it. Replace ‘gay’ with ‘black,’ or ‘interracial,’ or ‘Jewish,’ and see how it sounds,” he says.

“When we step into the public sphere, especially when running a public business, we have to follow all the rules, not just the ones we pick and choose,” Coatsworth says.

That approach seems to have worked pretty well for Brown, the “same-sex wedding photographer.”

She says her firm does mostly weddings. “About half are same-sex weddings, and half are what we call opposite-sex weddings,” she adds, with a laugh.

•  •  •

Part 1: How the push for gay rights is reshaping religious liberty in America
Part 2: A florist caught between faith and financial ruin
Part 3: Behind legal fight over religious liberty, a question of conscience
Part 4: In Mississippi gay rights battle, both sides feel they are losing
Part 5: Is wedding photography art? A wrinkle in religious liberty debate.
Part 6: For those on front lines of religious liberty battle, a very human cost
Part 7: A push to help gay couples find wedding joy – without rejection

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