The city of Louisville, Ky., cannot force a photographer to work at a same-sex wedding under a federal court ruling Tuesday that sided with a Christian businesswoman in her lawsuit opposing the application of a new ordinance.
Chelsey Nelson sued Louisville in 2019 and claimed its Fairness Ordinance – which bans discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity – would require her to photograph same-sex weddings, violating her First Amendment rights.
On Tuesday, U.S. District Judge Benjamin Beaton sided with Nelson, who owns a studio, Chelsey Nelson Photography.
“Although Louisville may require restaurants and hotels and stores to provide services regardless of the proprietors’ views or their customers’ legal status, the government may not force singers or writers or photographers to articulate messages they don’t support,” Beaton wrote. “Because speech is categorically different under the federal Constitution, local laws must treat it differently, too. … However worthy and widely supported the government’s commitment to equal access and respectful speech, these are concerns the First Amendment resolves in favor of the dissenting speaker.”
Beaton’s decision does not overturn the Fairness Ordinance but prevents the city from enforcing it against Nelson’s business. The decision also allows Nelson to state on her website that her faith prohibits her from working at same-sex weddings. The text of the Fairness Ordinance bans such statements.
The city would be violating Nelson’s First Amendment free speech rights by requiring her to work at a same-sex wedding, Beaton wrote. Further, he added, it would be violating a state law, the Kentucky Religious Freedom Restoration Act, that protects religious liberty.
“The freedom of speech – especially for minority views – is a core premise of our democratic republic,” Beaton wrote. “ … Because the U.S. Constitution supersedes Louisville’s Fairness Ordinance as a matter of law, this Court enjoins the City from either compelling or suppressing Nelson’s photography and writing.”
Alliance Defending Freedom represented Beaton.
“Free speech is for everyone. No one should be forced to say something they don’t believe,” said ADF legal counsel Bryan Neihart. “We’re pleased the court agreed that the city violated Chelsey’s First Amendment rights. The court’s decision sends a clear and necessary message to every Kentuckian – and American – that each of us is free to speak and work according to our deeply held beliefs.”
The U.S. Supreme Court is set to hear a similar case during its next term. That case is 303 Creative v. Elenis.
Photo courtesy: ©Alliance Defending Freedom, used with permission.
Michael Foust has covered the intersection of faith and news for 20 years. His stories have appeared in Baptist Press, Christianity Today, The Christian Post, the Leaf-Chronicle, the Toronto Star and the Knoxville News-Sentinel.