Court rules in favor of Chelsey Nelson Photography vs. Louisville

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A federal district court has ruled in favor of a Louisville photographer who filed a lawsuit against the city in 2019, alleging her fairness ordinance violated her constitutional rights as a Christian because it could force her to accept same-sex wedding commissions.

In a 44-page ruling by U.S. District Court Judge Benjamin Beaton on Tuesday, the court granted a motion by Chelsey Nelson, owner of Chelsey Nelson Photography, for an injunction against the city’s ordinance, saying the city could take it couldn’t ban her from advertising on her website that she only photographs ceremonies of the opposite sex.

Her lawsuit had alleged that the city’s fairness ordinance compelled her to sponsor and attend ceremonies that she objected to on religious grounds. And the judge agreed, saying in the ruling that while she was never asked to photograph a same-sex wedding, “state law protects her photography and related blogging from the encumbrances the city is trying to impose.”

In 2020, U.S. District Judge Justin Walker had previously blocked the city from enforcing the ordinance against Nelson and barred it from advertising its services on its website as exclusively for opposite-sex couples.

Nelson’s opinion:Photographer from Louisville: As a Christian, I shouldn’t be forced to organize same-sex weddings

In the latest decision, Beaton said the fairness regulation will not “survive” rigorous scrutiny and cannot restrict First Amendment rights. Nelson’s refusal to photograph weddings of same-sex couples stems from a true religious belief, his order said, and the ruling said the financial and legal burdens Nelson faces for following her beliefs and violating the Fairness Ordinance ” are quite substantial”.

In 1999, Louisville passed the Fairness Act, which prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity in housing, public accommodation, and employment.

Nelson was represented in her lawsuit by The Alliance Defending Freedom, which said in a statement after the ruling that she was “a photographer who serves clients regardless of their background,” although Nelson had argued in the lawsuit and additional statements that she would not work the same way – sex weddings because of their “passion for marriage” and their insistence on “designing ceremonies to reflect my views on marriage”.

Bryan Neihart, legal counsel for Alliance Defending Freedom, said in Wednesday’s statement that he was pleased with the court’s decision.

“We are pleased that the court agreed that the city violated Chelsey’s First Amendment rights. The court’s decision sends a clear and necessary message to every Kentuckian — and American — that each of us is free to speak and work according to our deeply held beliefs,” Neihart said.

Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer, meanwhile, said in a statement that he disagreed with the court’s ruling and that city officials “will likely appeal this decision.”

“We are a city of compassion and we appreciate the many ways our LGBTQ+ family contributes to our diverse community,” said Fischer. “The Louisville Metro government will continue to enforce its ordinance prohibiting antidiscrimination practices to the fullest extent possible and will fight discrimination in all forms.”

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Reporter Andrew Wolfson contributed to this story. Reach Ana Rocío Álvarez Bríñez at [email protected]; Follow her on Twitter at @SoyAnaAlvarez

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