Photographing Westboro Baptist

Imagine for a moment that you are one of the millions of newly-minted freelance photographers in the world. This shouldn't be too hard as, given Canon's sales numbers and the status updates I see on my social media feeds, something like a fourth of the world seems to be working in this field now anyway. And one day you receive an email from a group asking for a quote to photograph an event. You exchange information about dates, times, packages, etc., but they only reveal the details of the event a few emails in.

The event will be a combination of two things: it will be a funeral, a kind of event you have attended many times yourself. And it will be a protest, another kind of event you have attended before. But this will be the protest of a funeral. The group wants to hire you, that is, to photograph their efforts to protest the commemoration of a person's death. The group is Westboro Baptist Church.

To clarify, the clients aren't simply asking for photos of themselves. They're asking for help commemorating an event, a significant and symbolic moment which they feel states something important to the world. You have told them that you'd be happy to have any of them come into the studio for portraits, but that you would prefer not to be a part of the event itself because of its stated purpose. And as a sign of good will, you have offered to connect them to other photographers who you think would be willing to accept a contract to document this group's protest of a funeral.

That's not good enough, they say, and your petty concerns of conscience amount to discrimination against religious people.

What are you going to do? Well, whatever you decide, your decision will be complicated by one fact: you are legally required to accept the contract. And if you decline to accept their offer, you'll probably face thousands of dollars in fines. That was the precedent set by the Supreme Court of New Mexico last week in a real life case about a photographer who declined to photograph another event. The Court ruled, in essence, that her concerns of conscience about the moral implications of participating in the event could not factor into her decision about whether to take the contract.

Independent of your thoughts on this hypothetical scenario, or the real one linked above, does this kind of legal precedent seem problematic to you? Hopefully so, because it makes several major logical mistakes.

First, it says that to respect a person, you have to respect all decisions they might make which are within the bounds of the law. Protesting a funeral, for example, is technically within the bounds of the law. It's a hopelessly barbaric practice and one which I detest, though I suppose given the right loopholes and strategizing, it's possible. But one need not respect or want to support this course of action to respect the individuals participating. People are more than the sum of the events in which they participate, and I can love my neighbor without agreeing with his decision to do something like protest a funeral.

Second, the ruling confuses liberty with approval. In trying to ensure liberty for the clients to do what they want, the court felt warranted in demanding that the photographer make any moral compromises necessary. For example, one of the justices from the case said in his briefing:

"The Huguenins have to channel their conduct, not their beliefs, so as to leave space for other Americans who believe something different."

Question: would the event have been stopped if the photographer had persisted in declining the contract? Absolutely not. Was there "space" for the clients to have the event without her? Yes, of course. So why did the court demand that this photographer take the contract anyway? Because they think we have to approve of, and be made to bless, our neighbors' conduct in order for those neighbors to truly be free.

Of course, it would be simpler if our government always told us what were to approve of and what we were required to praise. That would definitely sidestep this kind of tension. But that would not be a society like the one we imagine ours to be either. A free society should never force people to approve of or take part in events which they find morally questionable.

Lastly and most importantly, the court makes the mistake of thinking that a person's conscience is made stronger and more mature by being broken, as if this is some kind of rite of passage. At one point in the aforementioned legal brief, for example, the court speaks of the defendant's need to take part in events which they find morally questionable by saying:

"That compromise is part of the glue that holds us together as a nation ... I would say to the [photographers], with the utmost respect: it is the price of citizenship."

Whatever your allegiances regarding Westboro Baptist church, as I used in my example, or the controversial real life case linked above, you will search in vain for examples of healthy societies in which revocation of one's conscience was the "price of citizenship." And insofar as we are sacrificing the protection of our consciences on the altar of state-enforced approval of certain behaviors, we are showing just how myopic our priorities have become.