Wedding Photographers Can Discriminate Against Same-Sex Couples, Kentucky Judge Rules

Last week, a Trump-appointed federal judge ruled in favor of a Louisville wedding photographer who sued the city over its 1999 non-discrimination “fairness ordinance.”

The lawsuit, which was filed on behalf of Chelsey Nelson in 2019, claims that the city’s ordinance violates her Christian beliefs and First Amendment rights by requiring all businesses to treat customers equally, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity. In an op-ed, Nelson said she should be allowed to refuse her photography services to same-sex couples, arguing that she would be going against her “sincerely held religious beliefs” if she had to provide equal treatment to LGBTQ+ customers.

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No same-sex couple had asked her to take photos at their wedding prior to filing the lawsuit, according to LGBTQ Nation.

After an intense three years of heated debate and public backlash, Federal District Court Judge Benjamin Beaton granted Nelson’s request to issue an injunction against the ordinance last Tuesday, the Courier Journal reported. In a 44-page ruling, Beaton said the city could not use the law to compel her to photograph same-sex weddings or “otherwise express messages inconsistent with Nelson’s beliefs.”

In his recent order, he claimed that Louisville’s fairness ordinance does not “survive” legal scrutiny and cannot limit First Amendment freedoms. Beaton said that Nelson’s refusal to photograph queer weddings is born out of a genuine religious commitment, and the financial and legal consequences she faces for abiding by her beliefs “are quite substantial.”

As a member of the Federalist Society, a conservative legal organization with a longstanding history of an anti-LGBTQ+ bias, Beaton’s ruling comes as no surprise. Chris Hartman, executive director of the Kentucky LGBTQ+ advocacy organization Fairness Campaign, says it “sets a dangerous precedent for discrimination by people that run public businesses.”

“The recent ruling from Trump-appointed Judge Beaton strikes at the heart of discrimination protections for LGBTQ people — not just here in Louisville and Kentucky, but all across the nation; it sets a dangerous precedent for discrimination by people that run public businesses,” Hartman told Hyperallergic.

“What Judge Beaton has done is create a carve-out for wedding photographers, singers, writers, even custom jewelers, and more to openly discriminate against LGBTQ people and couples, and to advertise their intent to do so — that is wholly unprecedented in terms of discrimination protections across the board,” he continued.

For the case, Nelson was provided legal counsel through the Alliance Defending Freedom, a legal advocacy and training organization that has been flagged as a designated hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center for its regular defamation of LGBTQ+ people and its repeated attacks on their civil liberties.

The city has said it will likely appeal the judge’s ruling.

“We are a city of compassion and we appreciate the many ways our LGBTQ+ family contributes to our diverse community,” Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer said in a public statement. “Louisville Metro Government will continue to enforce to the fullest extent possible its ordinance prohibiting anti-discriminatory practices and will fight against discrimination in any form.”

Additionally, organizers and legal advocacy groups have expressed their determination to continue to protect LGBTQ+ civil liberties on a local level, regardless of the federal court ruling.

“Despite this, we’re going to continue advancing fairness ordinances all across Kentucky. There are 24 Kentucky communities now that have banned LGBTQ discrimination on the local level, and we’re not seeing any signs of slowing,” Hartman told Hyperallergic. “Ultimately, the Supreme Court is going to do whatever it is going to do, but it will not deter us and other state groups across the United States and national partner organizations to continue advancing LGBTQ civil rights, no matter what the court says.”


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