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Same-sex wedding services or else?

Industry professionals say they'll conduct business as usual

Concord's Larry Crowe photographs weddings, a side job he keeps to help pay for his kids' future education.

It's a business for Crowe, a former photojournalist who documented the L.A. riots in 1994. He meets with couples seeking his services. They interview him, checking for professionalism and warmth. He interviews them, checking for low maintenance and cooperation.

And that, Crowe says, is where the screening process ends. A gay couple planning a civil union or, if it becomes legal, a wedding down the road? Crowe will shoot it, if he likes you. He won't, however, if he believes you'll create headaches for him.

That's his philosophy, for straight people, for gay people, even, as he said, for cats and dogs, if they too are allowed to join paws one day.

'I did say to myself, 'Hmm, I wonder if I will have a same-sex couple sitting here . . . at some point,' ' Crowe said. 'Will it increase my business? Will I find myself at a gay wedding in the next year? I know that I'm okay with it . . . but if I turn somebody down, will they turn around and sue me because of some kind of thing that never entered my mind? That was never part of it?'

It is part of, though, another obscure issue that's surfaced in the debate over gay marriage. Gov. John Lynch says he'll sign a bill legalizing same-sex marriage only if the Legislature passes extra protection for religious groups and their employees. And that has led to a debate over

whether private citizens who work in the wedding industry, including photographers and videographers, are sufficiently protected from lawsuits if they have a philosophical problem with gay marriage and don't want to participate.

Lynch believes that religious institutions need a security blanket, a way that they may decline to join two people in gay matrimony without the threat of being sued.

It's a stance that proponents of the bill accept if that's what it takes for same-sex marriage to become law in New Hampshire. They've been fighting this fight for years. They feel like second-class citizens without the right to legally marry.

An asterisk that protects a church from the consequences of standing by its convictions? That's okay, those in favor of same-sex marriage say. They'll simply find a church that will perform the ceremony.

Kevin Smith, the leader of Cornerstone Policy Research, a conservative lobbying group deeply opposed to gay marriage, is among those looking to spread legal protection to private business people, like wedding photographers.

Smith was disappointed that Lynch, who'd previously opposed gay marriage, had changed his mind. He called Lynch's changes to the same-sex marriage bill 'sugarcoating,' adding: 'This is the governor giving in to what I think is the radical left of his party.'

Some think that Smith is merely creating a diversion to keep gay marriage in the closet by raising concerns about wedding photographers and the like. Smith believes that same-sex marriage runs counter to our very existence. No procreating, no deal.

Fine. But where does this nugget fit in? The one about photographing a gay couple during their big day? Do people like Crowe and Geoff Forester, another local wedding photographer, face a legal threat if they turn down a job?

Crowe and Forester both had long careers in photojournalism before turning to wedding photography. Forester once shot 40 weddings in a single year, when the economy was better. Crowe, a stay-at-home dad, shoots about a dozen weddings per year.

They say their personal feelings about gay marriage are irrelevant. Business is business. And if they choose to bypass a civil union or, later, a gay wedding, for any reason at all, court is the last place they'd expect to end up.

'There's a lot of websites that are gay friendly for anything,' said Forester, who worked at the Monitor and Boston Globe before starting his freelance career. 'Gays are very savvy about any kind of business decision that they make. There are gay cruises, gay vacations, a whole network out there, so I don't know if they'd even be seeking out someone who necessarily doesn't do it. I think it's a red herring. It's a non-issue.'

Added Crowe, 'Usually if there's a very different personality clash, people part ways because of that, so I really don't think that legal protection is necessary. I just think the overall feel between client and provider would probably allow you to part ways anyway.'

Jennifer Schwab, a wedding videographer from Loudon, concurs. 'I would agree with them,' Schwab said. 'I'd say that 99.9 percent of the time, that's exactly what's going to happen, that people are going to go within their own channels.'

But Schwab also sees the other side, to the point where she sent a letter to the Monitor. She was mindful to write that a restaurant should never refuse service to a gay couple.

But she also echoed Smith's view. She cited a case in New Mexico, where a lesbian couple sued a photographer for refusing to shoot their ceremony. The couple won.

'Really, I'm not worried that this is going to happen,' she said. 'But I wanted to bring it up for discussion. I would like to abstain from doing a wedding for the same reasons that a clergy member would. . . . I would like to be able to be honest with people. I'm not going to get all preachy on them, but I don't want to lie. I just want to be honest about it in the same way that they're being honest about what they're doing. This is something I don't want to be a part of.'

Schwab was soft-spoken and thoughtful during our discussion. She made it clear that she treats gay people with respect. She won't shoot a civil union, true, but she'll refer you to someone who will.

Which is what happened last summer when a friend asked her to shoot a gay couple's ceremony. Schwab said no, then told her friend about someone who'd gladly do it.

'I linked the two of them up, and everybody was happy,' Schwab said. 'I feel I can handle it in a way that people can respect.'

She proved that. But this latest buzz is yet another way to clog the debate at the State House while an important social issue awaits its fate.

Gay marriage? A gray area, indeed.

But lawsuits against photographers? Highly unlikely.

'People are over-thinking right now,' Forester said. 'For me, I'm in the business of shooting weddings. If I don't want to shoot a wedding for someone, I don't shoot it. Period.'

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