March 2023 Church & State Magazine - March 2023

Ky. Wedding Photographer Has No Right To Discriminate, AU Says


A Louisville, Ky., wedding photographer should have no right to discriminate against same-sex couples, Americans United and a coalition of faith and community leaders has told a federal appeals court.

The photographer, Chelsey Nelson, announced on her website that she would not provide services to same-sex couples. She sued to block enforcement of Louisville’s Fairness Ordinance, a law that prohibits discrimination on several factors, including sexual orientation. She claimed that abiding by the nondiscrimination law and accepting same-sex couples as clients would violate her First Amendment rights to free speech and free exercise of religion; she also asserted 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 a friend-of-the-court brief in support of the government’s motion to dismiss the photographer’s lawsuit. In the brief, AU 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. 

Two years later, a 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.”

Last September, city officials appealed the district court’s decision to the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. On Jan. 30, AU filed a friend-of-the-court brief before the appeals court on behalf of 16 religious and civil rights organizations explaining once again that the First Amendment does not require religious exemptions from antidiscrimination laws, and that antidiscrimination laws in fact protect religious freedom.

Asserts the brief, “If the First Amendment licenses religion-motivated denials of service to same-sex couples, as Nelson contends, then it also sanctions all other religion-motivated denials, including exclusions based on a customer’s faith. One could be refused employment, thrown out of a hotel or barred from purchasing a hamburger just for being of the ‘wrong’ religion. And no state or local authority or law could do anything to remedy the situation. Such a system would devastate religious freedom, not protect it.” 

Happy brides going down stairs

No discrimination! AU files brief in Ky. case (Getty Images)

These organizations joined AU’s brief in the Chelsey Nelson Photography LLC v. Louisville-Jefferson County KY Metro Government case: Anti-Defamation League; Bend the Arc: A Jewish Partnership for Justice; Central Conference of American Rabbis; Covenant Network of Presbyterians; Global Justice Institute, Metropolitan Community Churches; Hindu American Foundation; Interfaith Alliance Foundation; Men of Reform Judaism; Methodist Federation for Social Action; Muslims for Progressive Values; National Council of Jewish Women; Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association; Union for Reform Judaism; Unitarian Universalist Association; and Women of Reform Judaism.

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.

Act Now