The Department of Justice is backing a Kentucky wedding photographer who is suing the city of Louisville over an ordinance banning local businesses from discriminating against gay customers.
The DOJ’s “statement of interest,” filed this week in federal court, asserts that the photographer, Chelsey Nelson, is likely to succeed in her claim, because requiring her to photograph a “ceremony that violates her sincerely held religious beliefs” — in Nelson’s case, a same-sex wedding — “invades her First Amendment rights.”
“The First Amendment forbids the government from forcing someone to speak in a manner that violates individual conscience,” Eric Dreiband, an assistant attorney general for the DOJ’s Civil Rights Division, said in a separate statement Thursday following the filing. “The U.S. Department of Justice will continue to protect the right of all persons to exercise their constitutional right to speech and expression.”
Nelson sued Louisville officials in November, arguing that the city's ordinance violates her First Amendment rights to free speech and free exercise of religion. According to the lawsuit, her Christian views, which include the belief that “God created marriage to be an exclusive covenant between one man and one woman,” shape “every aspect of her life,” including “her business, her art, and her creativity.”
“Chelsey would decline any request for wedding celebration services or boutique editing services for a same-sex wedding, polygamous wedding, or an open marriage wedding because creating artwork promoting these events would violate Chelsey’s religious and artistic beliefs,” the suit explains.
Nelson and her attorneys, two of whom are from the Alliance Defending Freedom — a conservative Christian legal group that has fought against LGBTQ rights for decades — are asking the court to block enforcement of the Louisville law, known as a fairness ordinance, so Nelson would not have to photograph same-sex weddings.
“The Free Speech Clause prohibits the government from requiring people to engage in speech supporting or promoting someone else’s expressive event, such as a wedding ceremony,” the DOJ stated Thursday. “Forcing a photographer, against her conscience, to express her support for a wedding that her faith opposes violates the Constitution.”
Nelson has not, according to court records, been forced to photograph a same-sex wedding. But while she is opposed to providing her services to two brides or two grooms, her lawsuit states that she would “happily work with and provide her wedding celebration services for a wedding between a homosexual man and a woman.”
City of Louisville officials have responded to Nelson’s lawsuit by arguing that she has no cause to challenge the ordinance. Lawyers defending the city government have asked the judge to dismiss the suit.
The American Civil Liberties Union filed a brief defending the city, arguing that Nelson's intent to offer her services only to opposite-sex couples violates the city law.
“At its core, Nelson Photography’s objection is not to a particular message requested by any particular customer, but to providing a service to an entire class of customers who are not heterosexual,” the ACLU brief said. “Nelson Photography must know who a prospective customer is before deciding whether it will refuse to serve that person. That is identity-based discrimination, not an objection to the provision of a specific product.”
The suit echoes a narrow 2018 ruling by the Supreme Court that said Colorado violated the rights of a baker to exercise his religion when it sanctioned him for declining to bake a wedding cake for a gay couple.
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