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.

Log in or register to post comments

213 Comments

Previous comments

Absolutely, but it didn't stop me from making a point at the same time. #multitasking.

Did Jesus issue the certificate for her Limited Liability Company? No. Presumably the State of Kentucky did. So she has to follow the laws of the State of Kentucky.

You seem to be commenting without reading first. I agree, she needs to follow the laws if she wants to operate as a business. Where did I say otherwise? I said if she doesn't want to follow the law for how to run her business, nobody is stopping her from volunteering and doing "god's work" for free.

I'm not criticizing your comment. Rather, I'm adding to it, complementing it.

Simon Patterson's picture

Of course some activists will try to set her up to destroy her, as a punitive measure because they disagree with her views. They'll be the ones who choose to use marriage as a weapon, and they won't be the first or the last to do it.

Nightmare couples can come from every sexual persuasion; in this case it'll be an LGBT couple who'll approach her with the intention of being rejected, so they can use the law to destroy her business. It is inevitable and she's wise to make this legal move first, to try to protect her livelihood.

Yep same thing with that Bakery business they keep coming back to harass the man it's ridiculous.

Eric Mazzone's picture

The bakery who doxed the couple after they accepted the baker's no? Because THAT is why the baker was sued, for posting the couple's personal information and asking people to harass the couple!

Daniel Medley's picture

Which bakery are you talking about? The one that I believe MC G was referencing was the one who refused to make a custom cake for a gay wedding. They were sued for discrimination under Colorado's Anti Discrimination law, not for doxing anyone. The bakery then went on to win a SCOTUS ruling in their favor: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Masterpiece_Cakeshop_v._Colorado_Civil_Rig...

Keep in mind that I'm not coming down on one side or the other vis a vis this case. Just pointing out that if you're talking about this particular case, doxing had nothing to do with it.

She is the activist here. You misread the story.

Jarrett Hunt's picture

If you force a photographer to take your photo that truly have no interest or investment in them then they won't do the best work.

Which is why nobody is forced to hire her. Using that argument to decide legislation, though, is altogether different.

Dan Howell's picture

Actually, I think an argument could be made that the ultra-religious organization is using this minor-league photographer to push their agenda. She is obviously willingly participating in their agenda, but she provides no proof that she has been forced to shoot any specific project.

My stomach kinda turned reading that the intolerant photographer would basically make an exception to working with a gay or bi-sexual man as long as he was at the alter with a woman.

Respectfully, I think a country that was founded with religious freedom as one of its core principles has sadly misunderstood what that means for too long. It doesn’t mean you get to project your religious beliefs on others. It’s pretty much the opposite.

Also, it’s ironic that the religion(s) (including denominations here) that most benefitted from this freedom at the start of the country are the ones who are most willing to throw it overboard so they can discriminate in the same way that their ancestors experienced. Stop trying to pull the ladder up behind you and start remembering that freedom from religious persecution means you don’t get to persecute other religions (or beliefs that you claim are at odds with yours). That is not how religious freedom works. I think the problem is that a select few religions have basically operated without much competition for too long so they simply didn’t have to give it much thought. Well, that ship has sailed and now you have to deal with the fact that the U.S. is not a bubble, and you’re basically shooting yourself in the foot every time you discriminate against others. Imagine what would happen if one day you find yourselves in the minority again. Would you want to be the subject of persecution and discrimination? Didn’t think so.

I think if you distill the first paragraph here to just a few words, it basically reads:

“Chelsey Nelson has proclaimed herself a victim of fairness”

Now take a moment to consider how ridiculous that actually is.

Eric Mazzone's picture

She wants to be able to tell people the WHY she's refusing to do their wedding. She COULD simply just pass on those inquiries and never give a reason why beyond that she thinks they aren't a good fit. Instead, she wants to be able to bash the inquiries and not face punishment for it.

Simon Patterson's picture

Looking at the comments here, there is much misunderstanding as to why she would refuse. I can therefore understand why she might want to clarify that, which has nothing to do with bashing anyone.

Rob Mynard's picture

Except that America wasn't built on religious freedom (maybe the constitution was I don't know) but Americans conveniently forget that the pilgrims didn't leave England to escape religious persecution, they were escaping civic persecution preventing them from religiously persecuting others. In the UK they viewed the pilgrims leaving as getting rid of the religious zealots.

I wouldn't disagree that many of the people who established the country benefitted personally from the decisions that were made regarding freedom of religion, but the reality is that it doesn't matter, because the country *was* founded deliberately free of any established religion. The issues that have arisen since are largely due to people who forget (or never understood) this distinction, which, to be fair, has been happening since the country was founded. Their arguments are usually along the lines of, "this country was founded by religious people, ergo their religion is the established one". And members of that "established religion" continue to try and use that position to push their own agendas into secular life.

Fortunately, this was never the intention nor the outcome. Thomas Jefferson was quite clear on it.

"It means you don't get to project your religious beliefs on others." It also means you don't get to project your sexual orientation beliefs on others.

False equivalence. Sexual orientation isn’t “projected”. If you’re straight, you don’t “project” being straight, you just are, and nothing about that is forced onto others. You don’t “project” being straight by getting married, you just get married. There’s no difference with being gay. A gay person isn’t forcing you to be gay by being gay themselves. Expecting equal rights is not a commentary on how you live YOUR life unless you live your life by denying the rights of others.

This is what bigots don’t get about equality. The mere existence of something they disagree with is seen as an affront to their own lives, and they pretend that they are somehow being infringed upon by this mere existence. You don’t get to claim that you’re being discriminated against simply because you’re being told you can’t discriminate. That’s not how it works.

I’m not entirely sure logic is your strong suit. In fact, you should probably remove that word from your vocabulary altogether.

When you use words like “abnormal” and “deviant minority”, you’re already showing your bias. Being clear in one’s beliefs is not the same thing as having a logical thought process.

The flaw in your "logic" is that you’re putting the cart before the horse. If the conversation revolves around religious beliefs in the decision making process, it’s already gone too far.

Here’s how a secular society works:

A couple (religion and sexual orientation not known) sees a photographer’s work and says, “Hey, I like their work, so I’d like to hire them to shoot our wedding”. Period. If the photographer wants to go on vacation around the time of the wedding, they have every right to, meaning nobody is “forcing” anybody to shoot a wedding. However, if the photographer starts making decisions regarding how they will or will not serve the couple based on religious beliefs, race, or sexual orientation, that is discrimination. Period. Using religious beliefs to justify discrimination does not make you discriminated against when the law of a secular society says you can’t discriminate. That’s not how it works, even when it’s obvious that you’d prefer things to be that way.

Eric Mazzone's picture

In the words of the competition judge to Adam Sandler's title character in the movie Billy Madison, after Billy Madison had responded to a question with an answer that sounded superficially reasonable but lacked any substance:

'Mr Madison, what you've just said is one of the most insanely idiotic things I've ever heard. At no point in your rambling, incoherent response was there anything that could even be considered a rational thought. Everyone in this room is now dumber for having listened to it. I award you no points, and may God have mercy on your soul.'

I honestly do not understand what the point of this article is. As a photographer, you can turn down any client anytime and without giving a reason as long as you do not have entered an agreement already. But if you're still in the early stages of meetings and negotiations, you can stop these for so many reasons. Not having a connection with your clients can be one of them. And not having a connection can be based on their believes, their life style, anything.
I think that judging people based on their believes or sexual orientation is very, very stupid, but that's not what this article is about. This is about picking and choosing you customers as a photographer.

That's the culture of the left today though..

I honestly do not understand what your political affiliation has to do with this. Stop posting flamebait. You might wake this other guy who likes to throw gender into the discussion for no other reason than to entice reactions.

Arpad Ikuma Csizmazia's picture

I have shot one same sex wedding here in Germany, and while it was a bit unusual since it was the first time, really the only difference was two guys getting married instead of a guy and a gal. The rest was basically the same beautiful celebration as usual.

Thankfully, I'm not restricted or constricted by religious regulations or thoughts and I don't mind offering my services to anyone and so I definitely believe that one shouldn't discriminate against anyone.

Since weddings really rely on the chemistry between client and photographer, aside from the usual level of skill and professionalism, I'm sure she can at least meet with the clients and see if they hit it off so well that she can see herself shooting that wedding, even if it might not be one between man and woman.
And if they don't hit it off, either the clients will chose someone else or she will tell them that she might not be the right one for them, or at least come up with an excuse to discretely let them look elsewhere, maybe even give recommendations. Do it on an individual level, don't outright discriminate against groups of people.

And at least give herself and the clients a chance. Every wedding is different and so is every couple that comes knocking.

While I am often annoyed at illogical, annoying, stupid or whatever regulations every country/state/city imposes on their inhabitants, I don't think it's wrong for the state to prevent businesses from refusing clients based on sex, gender identification or sexual orientation, exactly because of people like her that would outright go and offer businesses that don't serve lgbtq people, reminiscent of Nazi Germany where businesses didn't serve jews, or even the US, some decades ago, where businesses didn't serve people of color or even interracial couples.

Her reasoning that she's christian also fails to acknowledge that there is a plethora of different christian churches, of which many actually are supportive of same-sex marriages nowadays. When even churches can adapt to changes in society, maybe some individuals can, too, some day.

Eric Mazzone's picture

Sadly, in the US, too many "faithful" refuse to accept anyone who is of a different church, because they are exclusionary and prideful.

Eric Mazzone's picture

In the words of the competition judge to Adam Sandler's title character in the movie Billy Madison, after Billy Madison had responded to a question with an answer that sounded superficially reasonable but lacked any substance:

'Mr Madison, what you've just said is one of the most insanely idiotic things I've ever heard. At no point in your rambling, incoherent response was there anything that could even be considered a rational thought. Everyone in this room is now dumber for having listened to it. I award you no points, and may God have mercy on your soul.'

I disagree with you. Simply put: this photographer rejects clients based on certain criteria. Why does it matter what those criteria are? I have seen articles with advice for photographers saying: you should get to know your customers before you reach an agreement just to make sure you feel comfortable with them and they feel comfortable with you. We chastise people for hiring photographers without ever meeting them. Why do you think that is? Is it not strange that it is apparently acceptable to reject a customer because of some uneasy feeling there is no connection, but it is not OK to reject a customer based on your religious believes?
Models are told to only work with photographers that they feel comfortable with. Do we have a list of things models are allowed to feel uncomfortable about? Does it really matter why you are feeling uncomfortable? You might think it is utterly stupid to feel uncomfortable around gay people (I think so), but is it OK to tell people when to feel uncomfortable?

More comments