WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court declined Monday to decide if a New Mexico wedding photographer was within her rights when she refused to work at a same-sex ceremony.
The denial leaves standing a decision by the state's highest court that went against the photo studio — although the local dispute has been long since rendered moot.
The case would have posed an important constitutional question with potentially sweeping implications: whether merchants whose products are inherently expressive must serve customers even when it conflicts with their beliefs.
That could include marketers, advertisers, publicists, website designers, writers, videographers and photographers — and perhaps others.
With the same-sex marriage movement winning legal battles state by state, the case could have been one of the most important of the court's next term.
The case featured Elaine Huguenin and her husband Jonathan, whose Albuquerque photo studio informed Vanessa Willock and Misti Collinsworth in 2006 that it only worked "traditional weddings."
Willock and Collinsworth had no trouble finding another photographer for their September 2007 ceremony. But Willock filed a complaint against Elane Photography with the New Mexico Human Rights Commission, charging that the snub violated the state's anti-discrimination law. Twenty other states have similar laws.
The Huguenins have been on the losing side throughout the legal tussle. The commission and the state's Supreme Court ruled that New Mexico's anti-discrimination law forbids for-profit businesses from turning down customers on the basis of sexual orientation. The court said the studio violated that law "in the same way as if it had refused to photograph a wedding between people of different races."
The Huguenins' petition to the Supreme Court was based on their freedom of speech, which they interpret as the right to decide what messages their photography conveys.
"Of particular relevance here is the Huguenins' sincere religious belief that marriage is the union of a man and a woman," their petition said. "They believe that if they were to communicate a contrary message about marriage — by, for example, telling the story of a polygamous wedding ceremony — they would be disobeying God."
That set the case apart from legislative efforts in some states to establish religious exemptions to anti-discrimination statutes. The Huguenins' lawyers and supporters did not claim that businesses such as restaurants and hotels can refuse to serve gays and lesbians. A measure that could have had that effect was vetoed by Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer in February.
Similar objections have been raised to gay weddings by bakeries in Colorado and Oregon, a florist in Washington state and an event location in New Jersey.
Willock's attorneys said the Supreme Court has previously ruled that "businesses selling goods or services with an expressive dimension must abide by neutral regulations on commercial conduct."
But supporters of the photo studio cited two past Supreme Court decisions — one that allowed St. Patrick's Day parade organizers in Boston to exclude a gay rights group, and another that blocked New Hampshire from requiring residents to display its "Live Free or Die" motto on their license plates.
Eight other states asked the justices to take the case so that lawmakers considering "conscience-based exceptions to public-accommodations and same-sex marriage laws" would have legal guidance.
"It would help everyone if we knew what the baseline rules are," said Alabama Solicitor General Andrew Brasher.