May 12, 2017

Today the Kentucky Court of Appeals (the state’s intermediate appellate court) issued an opinion in another one of the series of cases involving a commercial business claiming it could refuse to serve a customer based on the religious beliefs of the owner. And it’s a loss for those who want to use religion to sidestep nondiscrimination laws.

Religious freedom guarantees us a right to believe or not as we see fit; it does not give anyone a right to ignore laws that bar discrimination.

Lexington Fayette Urban County Human Rights Commission v. Hands on Originals involves a T-shirt printing company that refused to print T-shirts for Pride festival because of the business owner’s religious belief that same-sex relationships are wrong.

But, a local law bans discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and the county Human Rights Commission ruled that Hands on Originals had violated it. The trial court that reviews the Commission’s decisions, however, disagreed. This decision gained some notoriety—it was the only one in all of the cases like it to hold that a business has a religious-exercise right to deny service.

The Court of Appeals would have none of that, however. The court held that the antidiscrimination ordinance is inapplicable to this situation—because the business made its decision based on the viewpoint expressed on the T-shirts and not based on the sexual orientation or gender identity of the person placing the order. (And we had submitted a friend-of-the-court brief explaining that there’s no free-exercise right to ignore the antidiscrimination law.)

This decision is especially important in light of the fact that the Supreme Court is still trying to decide whether to review a case called Masterpiece Cakeshop v. CraigMasterpiece is the bakery in Colorado that refused to sell a wedding cake to a same-sex couple, citing the owner’s religious beliefs. Colorado courts, however, determined that the bakery’s actions violated the state’s antidiscrimination law. (Here’s our friend-of-the-court brief arguing, again, that there is no free-exercise right to violate this law.)

The bakery asked the Supreme Court to review the decision, and the Court has been mulling over whether to take the case for weeks now. One factor that the Court considers when determining whether to accept a case for review is whether lower courts have conflicting views on the law. And today’s Kentucky Court of Appeals ruling, because it didn’t say the business has a religious-exercise right to discriminate, has ensured that lower courts are in agreement. Thus, there is one less reason for the Supreme Court to step in to decide the issue itself.

There is no religious right to deny service to someone based on who they love and we’ll keep up the fight to protect our neighbors from this kind of discrimination.