Chelsey Nelson is a wedding photographer and blogger in Louisville, Kentucky. She is also a Christian, and desires to use her artistic skills to promote and celebrate only marriages between one man and one woman. But a city ordinance prohibits her from doing that and she could be charged with discrimination and face unspecified damages if she ever turned down a same-sex wedding.

With the help of lawyers from Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), Ms. Nelson defended her First Amendment rights by suing the city over the unjust law. She recently won a major victory when Judge Justin Walker, appointed to the federal bench in 2019 by President Donald Trump, granted a preliminary injunction against the city, blocking it from enforcing the terms of its ordinance against her.

At this early stage of the litigation and in light of what the parties have argued, the judge said, Nelson is likely to win her case when it goes to trial and is therefore entitled to the injunction.

Judge Walker’s opinion is concise and clear, a rarity for judicial opinions.

“To cut to the chase,” the judge’s decision reads, “Nelson is likely to win by applying binding precedents and straightforward principles:

  • Her photography is art.
  • Art is speech.
  • The government can’t compel speech when it violates the speaker’s religious or political principles.”

The judge also had a message for those who think that a victory for free speech and religion is a loss for the LGBT community.

“America is wide enough for those who applaud same-sex marriage and those who refuse to,” he wrote. “The Constitution does not require a choice between gay rights and freedom of speech. It demands both.”

Judge Walker supported his ruling by pointing to decisions from the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in favor of a Minneapolis videography business and from the Arizona Supreme Court upholding the rights of a graphic arts and calligraphy studio in similar cases. He also quoted a passage from the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Obergefell v. Hodges, the landmark 2015 same-sex marriage case, and highlighted a key point about the free speech rights of those who disagree with such marriages:

“Finally, it must be emphasized that religions, and those who adhere to religious doctrines, may continue to advocate with utmost, sincere conviction that, by divine precepts, same-sex marriage should not be condoned. The First Amendment ensures that religious organizations and persons are given proper protection as they seek to teach the principles that are so fulfilling and so central to their lives and faiths, and to their own deep aspirations to continue the family structure they have long revered. The same is true of those who oppose same-sex marriage for other reasons. In turn, those who believe allowing same-sex marriage is proper or indeed essential, whether as a matter of religious conviction or secular belief, may engage those who disagree with their view in an open and searching debate.”

That passage, Walker emphasized, was written by none other than Justice Anthony Kennedy – the author of several previous opinions on LGBT issues – and it was joined by the four liberal justices, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan.

In other words, free speech and the freedom of religion are to remain respected, valued and protected in the law, according to Judge Walker, even when they collide with contrary beliefs and Supreme Court decisions about marriage and sexuality.

Nelson’s lawyers applauded Judge Walker’s ruling.

“Just like every American, photographers and writers like Chelsey should be free to peacefully live and work according to their faith without fear of unjust punishment by the government,” said ADF Senior Counsel Jonathan Scruggs. “The court was right to halt enforcement of Louisville’s law against Chelsey while her case moves forward. She serves everyone. She simply cannot endorse or participate in ceremonies she objects to, and the city has no right to eliminate the editorial control she has over her own photographs and blogs.”

There is no word yet whether the city intends to appeal the decision. Judge Walker will soon be leaving the district court to join the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit following his recent confirmation vote in the U.S. Senate.

The case is Chelsey Nelson Photography v. Louisville/Jefferson County Metro Government.

Photo from Alliance Defending Freeedom


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