Chelsey Nelson Photography LLC v. Louisville/Jefferson County

Last modified 2024.04.17

  • Status Ongoing
  • Type Amicus
  • Court U.S. Court of Appeals, U.S. District Court
  • Issues Discrimination by Businesses, Fighting Discrimination, LGBTQ Equality, Why People of Faith Support Church-State Separation

Case Documents

A Louisville, Kentucky wedding photographer who wished to exclude same-sex couples from her services–and even post on her website that she would not photograph weddings of same-sex couples–filed a lawsuit to prevent enforcement of Louisville’s Fairness Ordinance, a law that prohibits discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. She claimed that abiding by the nondiscrimination law and accepting same-sex couples as wedding clients would violate her federal First Amendment rights to free speech and free exercise of religion, and also that the nondiscrimination law was an unconstitutional establishment of religion because it would require her to participate in ceremonies contrary to her sincerely held religious beliefs. 

In February 2020, Americans United, along with 55 faith leaders from Kentucky and 12 religious and civil-rights organizations, filed an amicus brief in support of the government’s motion to dismiss the photographer’s lawsuit. We explained that mandating the religious exemption sought by the photographer would result in unconstitutional harm to vulnerable third parties and undermine existing protections against discrimination on the basis of religion. That motion to dismiss was granted in part and denied in part in August 2020. 

Two years later, the federal district court ruled in favor of the photographer, holding that enforcement of the nondiscrimination ordinance would violate her free speech rights and the Kentucky Religious Freedom Restoration Act. The court granted the photographer an injunction preventing the city from enforcing its nondiscrimination law against her. As a result of the injunction, the photographer’s website now states that she “cannot positively depict anything that demeans others, sexually objectifies others, or devalues marriage between one man and one woman” and that she “can’t photograph anything that conflicts with [her] religious conviction that marriage is a covenant relationship before God between one man and one woman.”

On September 29, 2022, the government appealed the district court’s decision to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit. And on January 30, 2023, we filed an amicus brief in the Sixth Circuit on behalf of 16 religious and civil-rights organizations explaining that the First Amendment does not require religious exemptions from antidiscrimination laws and that antidiscrimination laws in fact protect religious freedom.

On April 16, 2024, the Sixth Circuit sent the case back to the district court for further proceedings. In doing so, the Sixth Circuit declined to weigh in on the First Amendment issues or otherwise resolve the merits of the photographer’s claims.

Congress needs to hear from you!

Urge your legislators to co-sponsor the Do No Harm Act today.

The Do No Harm Act will help ensure that our laws are a shield to protect religious freedom and not used as a sword to harm others by undermining civil rights laws and denying access to health care.

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