In a case whose facts closely parallel another religious freedom case that will be argued at the U.S. Supreme Court this fall, a federal judge in Kentucky has ruled that a Christian wedding photographer has the right to restrict her clientele to opposite-sex couples and explain her religious beliefs about marriage on her website.
In Chelsey Nelson Photography v. Louisville/Jefferson County Metro Government, U.S. District Court Judge Benjamin Beaton issued an injunction prohibiting the city of Louisville, Kentucky and the surrounding county government from punishing Nelson for restricting her wedding photography clients in keeping with her religious beliefs. The judge’s order also allows her to advertise her religious beliefs about marriage on her business website. A local ordinance would have prohibited Ms. Nelson from doing both.
The judge acknowledged that although one of government’s legitimate goals can be to eliminate discrimination in public accommodations – which typically includes most businesses – he said the free speech provisions of the First Amendment limit the government’s authority in that regard.
“So 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,” Judge Beaton wrote.
The government may not compel persons to speak only a government-approved script on various subjects, according to Beaton.
“[T]he Constitution does not permit governments to promote their perceptions of fairness by extinguishing or conditioning the free expression of opposing perceptions of the common good,” Beaton wrote in his decision. He went on to say that, “[T]he Supreme Court, like Orwell, has long recognized the risk that compelled speech may ‘turn the writer, and every other kind of artist as well, into a minor official, working on themes handed down from above.’”
Nelson is represented by attorneys with Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), who applauded the court’s decision in a press release.
“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.
“We are hopeful that the Supreme Court issues a similar decision when it addresses the same issue in 303 Creative.”
The reference to “303 Creative” in the press release is to the name of another ADF client from Denver, Colorado. In that case, Lori Smith, a Christian wedding photographer and website designer, is challenging a Colorado state law there that would punish her for wanting to restrict her clients to opposite sex couples.
That case is captioned 303 Creative, LLC v. Elenis, and will be argued before the justices sometime this fall, with a decision expected by next June.
303 Creative picks up where the Supreme Court’s 2018 decision in Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission left off regarding the question of wedding vendors’ religious freedom. In Masterpiece Cakeshop, the decision in favor of baker Jack Phillips did not reach the question of free speech, which is prominently teed up in both the Kentucky case and 303 Creative.
If the upcoming Supreme Court yields a decision in 303 Creative as favorable to freedom of speech as Judge Beaton’s, it will clear up a problem that has been plaguing creative artists since the rise of LGBT nondiscrimination laws across the nation, and most prominently where weddings are concerned.
For now, however, the Kentucky decision is great news for all businesses in the Bluegrass State with creative elements to them who ought to be able to speak their own messages, not ones chosen for them by the government.
Photo from ADF.