Kentucky’s largest city cannot punish a professional Christian photographer for refusing on religious grounds to photograph same-sex wedding ceremonies, a federal court has ruled.

Chelsey Nelson is a wedding photographer and blogger in Louisville, Kentucky. | Courtesy of Chelsey Nelson

U.S. District Judge Benjamin Beaton of the Western District of Kentucky ruled Tuesday that Louisville could not enforce its LGBT nondiscrimination ordinance against photographer Chelsey Nelson, who is “motivated by her faith to celebrate marriage as the union of only opposite-sex couples.” 

Beaton, an appointee of former President Donald Trump, granted a summary injunction and argued the city’s ordinance preventing discrimination based on sexual orientation violated Nelson’s freedom of speech rights.

He stated that while the city “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.”

“The freedom of speech — especially for minority views — is a core premise of our democratic republic,” ruled Beaton. “As prevailing sentiments and politics have changed over the years, robust constitutional protection for differing views has remained fixed.”

The judge concluded that the First Amendment is “necessary to protect the discourse of same-sex couples and their supporters.”

“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,” he continued.

Jonathan Scruggs of Alliance Defending Freedom, who argued Nelson’s case on Aug. 7, said in a statement Wednesday he believes “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.”

“The court was right to halt enforcement of Louisville’s law against Chelsey while her case moves forward. She serves everyone,” said Scruggs.

“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.”

The Fairness Campaign, a Kentucky-based LGBT advocacy group, denounced the district court ruling in a post on Facebook.

“This is a disappointing and dangerous erosion of Louisville’s nearly 25-year-old [Fairness Ordinance] protecting [LGBT] people from discrimination,” the campaign stated.

“While employment, housing, & public accommodations discrimination protections remain in place, Trump-appointed Judge Benjamin Beaton exempts ‘singers or writers or photographers’ from having to provide services to LGBTQ people and weddings in his opinion.”

In November 2019, Nelson sued city officials over Louisville-Jefferson County Metro Government Ordinance § 92.05, which prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation for, among other things, public accommodations.

The lawsuit is a “pre-enforcement challenge,” as Nelson had not been charged with violating the ordinance or punished by the city for refusing to photograph a same-sex wedding.

In August 2020, U.S. District Judge Justin Walker, a Trump appointee, granted a preliminary injunction preventing Louisville from enforcing the ordinance against Nelson.

In early 2020, the U.S. Justice Department filed a statement of interest siding with Nelson. Eric Dreiband, who served as assistant attorney general for the DOJ Civil Rights Division during the Trump administration, said in a statement that “[t]he First Amendment forbids the government from forcing someone to speak in a manner that violates individual conscience.”

In February, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear the case of a Christian web designer who filed a pre-enforcement lawsuit seeking an exemption to a Colorado state law requiring her to create wedding websites for same-sex couples if she also offers similar services. She is also represented by the Alliance Defending Freedom. 

In 2018,  the Supreme Court ruled that Colorado violated the rights of Christian baker Jack Phillips by penalizing him for refusing to bake a custom cake for a same-sex wedding. In the 7-2 ruling, the court stated that laws must be applied in a manner that is “neutral toward religion.”

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