Kentucky Photographer Sues for Her Religious Right to Discriminate Against the LGBTQ Community and Game of Thrones Fans

Kentucky Photographer Sues for Her Religious Right to Discriminate Against the LGBTQ Community and Game of Thrones Fans

What started as a quiet local story in Louisville, Kentucky is quickly becoming national news. Early Saturday morning, USA Today published an opinion piece written by wedding photographer Chelsey Nelson in which she proclaimed herself a victim of Louisville’s Fairness Ordinance. 

In her article, Nelson introduces herself and her case through positive messages of what marriage means to her, repeatedly using words like “love,” “joy,” “awe,” and “passion.” She speaks of the importance of a strong relationship with the couples she photographs as any other photographer would:

On their wedding day, they probably spend more time with me than anyone else. I even do my initial consultations in my home. At my kitchen table over cookies, I get to hear about them and their dreams for the future as we plan how to capture their big day. Then, we schedule an engagement session to make sure they’re comfortable in front of my camera. (Most of us aren’t used to a photographer following us around all day, right?)

Chelsey Nelson's opinion article was published on USA Today on November 23, 2019

She goes on to admit that her strong values about marriage prevent her from photographing just any wedding ceremony:

Because marriage is so important to me, I’m careful to photograph and blog about each of these solemn ceremonies in a way that reflects my views of marriage... to show others that marriage really is worth pursuing… For example, I can’t celebrate a wedding that devalues how seriously I take marriage — like a heavily themed Halloween or zombie-themed wedding.

It seems fair enough. It’s likely that many photographers would avoid a gimmicky zombie-themed wedding, though gimmicks are obviously not her only worry when it comes to photographing what she perceives as non-traditional weddings. In the opinion piece, Nelson repeatedly dances around her true concern, but to anyone with half a brain cell and an awareness of recent current events, it’s all too clear. For Nelson, LGBTQ weddings are public enemy number one and in a media environment that's increasingly focused on spin, Nelson portrays herself as a victim:

[A] Louisville, Kentucky law threatens me with damages if I stay true to my beliefs about marriage. Actually, the law won’t even let me explain some of my religious beliefs about marriage, whether on my studio’s website, social media, or directly to couples who may want to work with me. I also can’t explain how some of my religious beliefs affect which weddings I celebrate through my photography.

Here's some background information on the Louisville law to which Nelson is referring. Passed in 1999, the Louisville Fairness Ordinance was a major victory for historically marginalized communities, establishing protections for the LGBTQ community (among others) from discrimination:

It is the policy of the Metro Government to safeguard all individuals within Jefferson County from discrimination in certain contexts because of race, color, religion, national origin, familial status, age, disability, sex, gender identity, or sexual orientation. Certain practices must be prohibited within the areas of employment, housing, public accommodation, resort or amusement as necessary to protect individual’s personal dignity and insure freedom from humiliation; to make available to Jefferson County all full productive capacities; to secure Jefferson County against strife and unrest which would menace its democratic institutions; and to preserve the public safety, health and general welfare. (Louisville/Jefferson County Metro Government, Chapter 92)

The ordinance goes on to define discrimination as “any direct or indirect act or practice of exclusion, restriction, segregation, limitation, refusal, denial, or any other act or practice of differentiation or preference in the treatment of a person or persons, or the aiding, abetting, inciting, coercing, or compelling thereof made unlawful under this chapter.” Clear enough.

Because Chelsey Nelson Photography provides goods and services to the general public, her business is categorized as a Place of Public Accommodation, Resort, or Amusement. In refusing her services to anyone because of their sex, gender identity, or sexual orientation, Nelson would certainly be breaking the law. What’s more, the ordinance prohibits businesses from advertising in any way (website, social media or otherwise) that they plan to deny service to anyone in the future because of discriminatory practices or beliefs. 

So yes, if Nelson can’t tell the world that she doesn’t want to service the LGBTQ community and she can’t legally turn the LGBTQ community away if they attempt to contract her for weddings, then she’s a bigot up a creek without a paddle. 

While her manifesto in USA Today provides a seemingly heartfelt and non-confrontational explanation of her beliefs regarding marriage, a lawsuit filed against the city of Louisville on November 19th makes her self-justified bigotry crystal clear. With the assistance of legal representation provided by Alliance Defending Freedom (a conservative Christian faith non-profit), Nelson submitted fifty-three pages to argue that by enforcing the Fairness Ordinance, Louisville is actually violating her religious freedoms. 

Here are some of the highlights of the suit:

  • Nelson believes that by forbidding her from proclaiming her discriminatory practices against LGBTQ weddings, she is being forced to violate the biblical command to love her neighbor through honesty. (Section 79)
  • Nelson believes that some people have a calling from God to create art and that she is one of those people. (Sections 83 and 84)
  • Nelson wants to turn down any requests for services that require her to use her God-given talents to promote immorality, dishonor to God, or anything contrary to her religious beliefs. (Section 187) These requests are further characterized as same-sex, polygamous, open marriages, or “services that demean others, devalue God’s creation, condone racism, sexually objectify someone, celebrate pornography or obscenity, praise vulgarity, or contradict biblical principles.” (Sections 190-192)
  • It’s not just LGBTQ weddings that pose a problem. Nelson is fighting for her right to turn down zombie or Game of Thrones-themed weddings as well. (Section 206)

A screenshot of Alliance Defending Freedom's blog about Chelsey Nelson

There’s a lot to unpack there, and I’ll let you explore it in its mind-numbing depth on your own, but any members of the LGBTQ community hoping to hire Chelsea Nelson for their wedding photography anyway shouldn’t despair. Nelson asserts she is happy to work with anyone regardless of their race, religion, or sexual orientation provided that a few specific criteria are met:

...Chelsey will happily work with and provide her wedding celebration services for a wedding between a homosexual man and a woman so long as the marriage is the exclusive union of that one man and one woman. Likewise, Chelsey will happily work with and provide her wedding celebration services for a wedding between a bisexual woman and a man so long as the marriage is the exclusive union of that one woman and one man. (Sections 200-202) 

So, there you go. She's only opposed to homosexuality if it's unrepressed.

What are Nelson's overall goals? In both her opinion piece and her lawsuit, Nelson expresses that her ultimate desire is to either be allowed to turn away LGBTQ marriages with which she doesn’t agree or be allowed to proclaim her beliefs clearly on her website and social media to keep any would-be LGBTQ clients from attempting to hire her. As things currently stand, Nelson feels she is being forced to choose between her religion and her livelihood.

While no LGBTQ couples have approached her requiring she break the law yet (we know this because the suit is characterized as a “pre-enforcement challenge”), her suit claims the situation is inevitable. The suit specifically references Louisville as having “the 11th highest rate of people who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender among the fifty largest metropolitan areas in the United States.” (Section 243) 

Chelsey Nelson doesn’t like those odds:

Chelsey faces a credible threat and substantial risk that she will receive requests to provide wedding celebration and boutique editing services for same-sex weddings, likely leading to prosecution under Louisville’s law. (Section 242)

After widely proclaiming her feelings toward same-sex marriage or anything else she deems “non-traditional,” I wouldn’t be so sure that the threat is all that “credible.” Everyone everywhere will now know exactly what she believes and any clients hoping to avoid discrimination will likely give her a wide berth.

I spoke with Rebecca and Charlotte (last names withheld, because even though Louisville is progressive, Kentucky was the setting for the Kim Davis debacle), an engaged couple living in Louisville, to get their perspective on the situation. They believe Chelsey Nelson is unlikely to receive LGBTQ wedding requests in the first place. Rebecca told me about their vendor search:

A lot of photographers on Instagram would have something on their bio saying 'Jesus is king,' which seemed like code for 'I won’t shoot your gay wedding.' Then, you look and see no photos of same-sex couples. I don’t know why she thinks a same-sex couple will even want to hire her. As queer people, we’re so used to being very careful. If you’re a queer couple, you’re going to find a vendor who shows publicly that they’re queer-friendly. You don't want a negative interaction as a stain on your wedding-planning experience.

Charlotte added:

If I'm going to hire you, I want to see you’ve been doing this for at least five years and that you’ve shot queer people and people of color before. I want you to know what you're doing, how to pose us as a couple (without relying on straight-gendered posing), and what to expect. I wanna see the receipts!

Based on the experience they've had living in Louisville, neither Rebecca nor Charlotte think this lawsuit is going to have any major ramifications within their city's LGBTQ community. The couple believes the article and lawsuit are a publicity stunt that will likely succeed in bringing in more business from people who have the same beliefs as Chelsey Nelson. For a business with roughly 400 Instagram followers and fewer than 150 Facebook followers, the lawsuit serves as a big opportunity to garner plenty of national attention. Adding to the publicity stunt argument is the fact that Nelson has been in business for three years and didn't choose to fight for her religious freedom to discriminate until now, coinciding with the 20th anniversary of Louisville's Fairness Ordinance.

Through her widely circulated opinion piece and her now high-profile lawsuit, Chelsey Nelson seems to have found the ultimate loophole for Louisville’s Fairness Ordinance: while it is illegal to discriminate on your website and social media, it’s not illegal to tell the world that you aim to discriminate if you do it under the auspices of filing a lawsuit. 

Perhaps that’s what she was after all along.

For a directory of LGBTQ friendly businesses in Louisville, Kentucky, visit https://www.fairness.org/resources/

Lead image provided by Laura Rhian Photography under Creative Commons.

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205 Comments

Leigh Miller's picture

Sad to see but we shouldn't be trying to legislate everything. People should have the right to choose how they want to run their businesses.

Vote/protest with your wallet .

I wonder if maybe you feel that way because freelance photography is such an ephemeral business model (no storefront, sole proprietor, etc) that it seems like it really is “just an individual” making decisions in private.

Would you say the same thing if it was a restaurant hanging a sign that said “No blacks”?

Leigh Miller's picture

I grew up in the deep south. Saw plenty of signs both written and implied that said no blacks.

Those businesses have all dried up in the small geographic area I spent my first 15 years in.

I don't wanna see fat a$$es in bikinis but I respect the rights of others to enjoy that. And I don't have to look. Shall we make laws that force our chubby friends to cover up?

Personally Ive found the number of same sex/lgbtq marriages are spectacularly on the rise. Why deny myself a good chunk of that money?

"Those businesses have all dried up in the small geographic area I spent my first 15 years in."

So does that mean what they did was ok? It's fine to discriminate as long as there are enough people around to *eventually* ignore them? That doesn't do much for the people being discriminated against at that time and place. The point is to protect people from persecution, not sit around and 15 years later say, "whelp, looks like they were wrong after all. Hand me the remote".

"Shall we make laws that force our chubby friends to cover up?"

Um, no, because that would be the definition of discrimination, not an example of how legislation would become overly obtrusive in an attempt to prevent it. Do you even read what you write?

Leigh Miller's picture

There is a very large difference between what "should be" and what "is".

I agree with you on the face of your commentary. It should not be ok to discriminate based on differences of opinions etc. You missed my point..perhaps I didn't make it clear enough. In any case...

It's obvious that the party in question is using their business to project beliefs/opinions etc. There is no other plausible explanation. Eventually the market erases such people from the environment.

I started out in the Financial sector, went back to school and got into the legal world, then back out and into photography.

In my experience, there isn't a single investment company, lawyer, doctor, accountant etc who will turn away money from anyone. To those professions the only color that matters is green...and the only religion is profit...

I keep hearing/reading about how the profits/opportunities in this field is shrinking. A photographer who can turn away business just to make a statement about discrimination must be doing very well indeed. Rich enough...huh.

I don't want the government of my country getting their noses into every aspect of my life.

"There is a very large difference between what "should be" and what "is"."

Perhaps, but one is not an excuse for the other. I agree that, to some degree, businesses can (eventually) be equalized based on how they operate socially. But since when did social justice become the economy's responsibility? It didn't, because the economy as a whole is incapable of operating in that capacity. It's one variable, sure, but we still need laws to protect people from persecution. I don't see why that's such a hard thing to understand.

The whole "GUBBERMENT GIT OUT MY DAMN HOUSE" attitude is mostly just knee-jerk overreactions to issues that often require far more specific remedies than the government literally coming into your house and telling you what utensil to eat with. I agree that we shouldn't legislate "everything", but protecting people from discrimination is hardly "everything". If people want to have proper conversations about the specific issues as they come up, that's great. Yelling "GOVT SUX" every time any issue comes up ever is just a distraction from the issue, it's never the issue itself.

The funny thing is, your original sentiment that we shouldn't be trying to legislate everything (and subsequent comments on how businesses should be able to do what they want) are kind of ironic since she's the one trying to do the legislating here.

I am black. If I business does not want to serve black people, why would I want to give them my money? I rather a business/person be honest up front. I could take my money to a business that accepts me or my lifestyle. If I person does not like black, gay, LGBTQZ, Jewish people why would you force them to take your money? Not saying what is right or wrong. I just don't like giving money to people that don't like me.

That sounds dreamy, but it's a poor argument for making discrimination legal just so it's "out in the open". You assume everybody always has the option to opt out of discrimination when it happens. What if you live in a town with only one grocery store and they suddenly decide they aren't going to allow you in any more? The issue isn't whether you *want* to spend your money there... sometimes you just need to. Now imagine it's a local doctor's office, or gas station, or whatever. If everybody could afford to move whenever they want, wherever they want, the population would be distributed a lot differently right now.

It would be great if we could always "vote with our wallets" and put those mean people out of business, but that's an argument from privilege, because it doesn't account for the fact that it's not an option for everybody. Hence, laws.

There is no discrimination. You don't have the right to force anyone to work for you.
The analogy of a BEHAVIOR with skin color is false, too.
So a group of people are allowed to do something (that implies other people and change the society) based on "I feel so", but another group, not? Isn't THAT discrimination?

Back in MBA school they told us it was expensive to discriminate. Take that to heart and serve people as you yourself would want to be served. You will be dollars, euros, pounds ahead and your immortal soul will be more likely to make it to your heaven. God might surprise these people who discriminate and ask them where they ever got those mean and nasty ideas.

Leigh Miller's picture

Heard that very same sentiment at business school here too...

I would shoot a KKK engagement or wedding if the fee was right....and eat my watermelon and bbq during dinner break as well.

the likelihood of seeing a "no blacks" sign is highly unlikely and would be against the law.

Thank you, you've just proven my point and missed it all at the same time.

Businesses aren't allowed to discriminate based on very well established criteria, among those ethnicity and religion. The issue at hand is an extension of that.

The part you missed has nothing to do with the likelihood or current legality of anything, it has to do with whether Leigh's comment holds up under scrutiny. It was absolutely a loaded question because yes, it would be absurd to see a sign like that now. And it would be (rightfully) called out as discrimination, as well as against the law. But because people like to compartmentalize things, they forget that many of these cases have already happened, and been legislated. Different players, same game.

If the standard you apply to this case is, "businesses should just be able to do whatever they want", then there's nothing to stop the scenario I described from happening again. I think most people would agree that it shouldn't happen again, so it's reasonable to conclude that the comment was, in fact, a bad one. Hypocrisy at best, discriminatory at worst.

David Schloss's picture

"the likelihood of seeing a "no blacks" sign is highly unlikely and would be against the law."

But that's the point. If the photographer put up on her website a statement that she would not photography blacks, you can see clearly how this would be against the law. She wants to be able to put a statement on her website indicating that she will not photograph homosexual couples.

Swap the word homosexual with black, same thing. It's discrimination either way.

There's no difference if I put up a sign on my restaurant door that says "no blacks allowed" or "no gays allowed." I don't get to claim that I'm just giving a notice of my personal opinions of the race or sexual orientation of the customer.

She is not a sole proprietor. Her business is an LLC. As such, it is organized under the laws of the State and has to abide by the laws for businesses in that State. To get the legal benefit of operating as an LLC, you have to follow the law. And that includes the law against discrimination.

I'm not sure why you're telling me that, I agree. My point was that these are common traits associated with freelance photography, which to some can make it seem like it doesn't operate the same as a more "traditional" business (and therefore may operate with certain freedoms that traditional businesses can't claim) . I was speaking generally, not about her in particular, in order to make a point.

Your point is well taken.

A true American understands that any government that violates the principles outlined in our Declaration of Independence is not an American government. All rights are endowed by our Creator and "Nature's God." Not necessarily the Christian God but the God who institutes the laws of nature or the "Natural Law". Since the rights from God are endowed to each individual, power for government comes from the people. Even so, no individual has the right to deny another person their endowed rights. Each of us has a "circle of liberty" around us. We do not break another's circle of liberty. That is why freedom is not free. We, each individual, give up a little freedom to government to guarantee the maximum amount of freedom for everyone.

We do not have a license to do anything we want but the liberty to do what we ought. Our founders recognized that those governments that acted contrary to this "Natural Law" did not prosper and were, more times than not, subjugated or conquered, whether from within or without.

It is in this framework that the TWO governments of these United States of America have operated. The first was under the Articles of Confederation and the second, our present Constitution.

Under our present Constitution, all powers to the Federal are enumerated, that is, it has to be spelled out exactly for the Federal to have jurisdiction. That is why the Federal had jurisdiction (and still does) in the matter of the color of skin. After the American Civil War, congress proposed by 2/3 vote in both houses to present, what became, the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments. The states acted and when 3/4 of the legislatures in those states ratified said amendments they became part of our Constitution.

And, let's not forget the bottom line. If we are to be a free people, we must accept each other (unless loss of life, liberty, or property is involved). Kind of "what's good for the goose is good for the gander.."

As Laurence M. Vance said, "In a free society, any person or group of persons has the right to associate with any other person or group of persons willing to associate with him or it on the basis of any standard and for any reason. And likewise, any person or group of persons has the right not to associate with any other person or group of persons on the basis of any standard and for any reason."
https://www.fff.org/explore-freedom/article/does-the-first-amendment-pro...

However, if the Federal is to have jurisdiction in matters of marriage, etc. another amendment(s) needs to be proposed by a convention of the states or proposed/passed by congress and ratified by the states. Namely, the people will give that right up to the government. Until that happens, the Federal has no authority and these are issues to be handled by the states, locally, and individually as the 9th and 10th amendments specify.

So, when speaking of this, yes, since local governments have the final say on this unless it is depriving individuals of their God-given rights. Which can be, and it appears is, argued that the local laws are depriving the photographer Nelson from exercising her ability to conduct business etc.

The point that really called my attention to your post was the "hanging a no blacks sign". Historically speaking, it was the state GOVERNMENTS that were mandating discrimination. The "Jim Crow" laws were enforced by local and state governments in the south.

I do not put faith in government. The reason we need government is that "men are not angels" and we need limited government because "men are not angels." I'd rather try to deal with my neighbor individually without another person with a gun forcing me to deal with my neighbor.

Anyway, I saw this coming 40-50 years ago when all the "sexual orientation" arguments began. Talk about the proverbial "slippery slope." When you (or we, as Americans) accept that premise, Jeffrey Dahmer got rail-roaded. John Wayne Gacy was only doing what his "orientation" demanded.

Maybe those who try to legislate everything might put the shoe on the other foot. What would happen if tables were reversed? We have gotten to a point in this society where almost anything goes, but it appears that some have to keep putting others down because, perhaps, they can't accept themselves and NEED everyone to coddle them and tell them they are "OK."

Maybe we can start acting like Americans and stop insisting people do what they don't want to do and allow someone the room to not participate if it makes them uncomfortable. Isn't that what all these "fights for rights" has been about all along. To be left alone, to pursue our passions in the presence of the "Supreme Judge of the world."

I have heard that in the US if I am running a legit business with a license, a sales tax permit and the other city or state requirements like health codes and OSHA stuff I need to follow the non-discrimination laws and cannot say I won't serve that LGBT, Black Irish person or veteran because of my beliefs. I don't know if rules written in a 2000 or 1400 year old book apply in today's business world. I think the deal is that since the state is giving "permission" to run a business then I need to serve "everyone", whether I need permission is another topic.

OTOH in our private lives we are allowed to discriminate, for example not shop at a Jewish or Catholic owned store if we don't want to. I don;t know where casual photographers who sell their services but don't have any paperwork or permits fall into this....

Right you are. The state licenses businesses and if you want to do business you must follow the laws about everything, including not discriminating as they define it. If you want a business, you must follow the law.

I think photography is an unlicensed business, now that I think about it. If she had a brick and mortar studio, then the laws would apply to that place.

Her business is an LLC, so it is an entity authorized by the State. She has to follow the law just as a brick & mortar business does.

It does seem odd that on the one hand she is seeking special protections and privileges as a Limited Liability Company and on the other hand she wishes to deny the usual protections to certain of her customers.

Not a lawyer here, just a bit of knowledge of the Uniform Commercial Code. How about if she is a Sole Proprietor without any special licensure or brick and mortar place of business? How about if she has a website for all to see? It is a very good idea to know the law.

She is not a casual photographer with no paperwork. Her business is a Limited Liability Company. Says so in her complaint. As such, it is organized under authority of the State.

Mike Robinson's picture

There is a public interest in ending discrimination in business practices which you as a lawyer should at least understand. And let's not forget that if she refused to do business with a Christian, she would be in violation of Federal Law that is effective in all 50 states, ironically.

Leigh Miller's picture

First, I'm not a lawyer. I'm a photographer.

And I agree with your comment but there are already more than enough laws dealing with discrimination.

This entire exercise is about one person using her business to further opinions which just don't line up with yours maybe.

If she doesn't want to take pretty pictures of people who don't conform to her way of thinking so be it...it's a short route to the poor house. The latest numbers shows more people are amenable to relationships that are not along traditional/societal lines.

My interest is how much of the public's money I can attract. More for me if she turns some of them away.

The flaw in your logic is that you consider all things the same. But being a Christian is not the same as being LGBT and forcing other people to attend to your "marriage" and serve you. A Christian, too, shouldn't be allowed to force an atheist to enter in his Christian church and provide a service during a Christian ceremony. That's a more correct analogy.

Perry Harrington's picture

If I was in the business of shooting weddings or baking cakes, I would not actively discriminate against LGBTQ people, but I would still feel uneasy.

I believe freedom of religion, freedom of speech, and freedom of expression are rights we are all entitled to.

On one hand a freelance photographer should be able to pick their gigs, on the other their actions should not rise to the level of discrimination of a protected class.

There should be a way for someone who is not comfortable with a business transaction to bow out of the deal.

There has to be a distinction between a gig type of transaction and a brick and mortar operation.

If you visit a brick and mortar business, you go to a physical establishment that is intended to offer some type of good or service. If you are a freelance photographer, you have to pick your gigs (assignments) based on what fits your schedule, ability, finances, and comfort.

If this individual were forced (by law) to shoot all comers, would this be better for everyone or worse? If the photog is unhappy while shooting a wedding, the quality of the work will suffer. Is the "aggrieved party" better off or worse off?

"There has to be a distinction between a gig type of transaction and a brick and mortar operation."

Nobody is stopping her from operating as a private citizen and shooting the weddings that she chooses for free. In fact, in her own words, she believes she has a calling from god to create art. If that's true, it hardly seems appropriate to profit financially from god's will. Didn't Jesus expel the merchants from the temple?

Jeff McCollough's picture

Are you being sarcastic.

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