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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Kirk Darling's picture

A number of years ago, a fellow photographer and I discussed this situation during our men's bible study. How would we handle it?

IMO, the real problem here is with Christians in business who attempt to operate as though not Christians most of the time...until something touches their own pet sin peeve. Then they get righteous all of a sudden.

It's pure secularism--not Christianity--that would say, "I have a right to do business with whomever I choose."

There is a problem with a Christian taking that stance, however: Our scripture mandates just the opposite. Rather, we should be boldly Christian in all our associations (whether they touch our pet sin peeves or not), and then just as boldly Christian with those that do. Christians are mandated never to miss the chance of an evangelistic opportunity.

It should be apparent from the moment anyone logs onto our web sites that we're Christian, proud of, and will talk about it during ALL of our business activities.

Then, if a gay couple--knowing all that beforehand--hires us anyway...well, that's just an evangelistic opportunity not to be missed.

But never fear. Most Christians aren't going to do that because it would be bad for business.

Eric Mazzone's picture

Yeah, walk the walk and lead by example.

Simon Patterson's picture

"Christians are mandated never to miss the chance of an evangelistic opportunity." Where's that in the bible? Whilst I agree with a lot of what you've said, I don't think the mandate to "never miss an evangelistic opportunity" exists.

Kirk Darling's picture

It's all over the New Testament. There is zero justification for cloistering oneself away from "sinners"--THAT is what you can't find in the New Testament.

In 1 Corinthians 5: "I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people--
not at all meaning the people of this world who are immoral, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters. In that case you would have to leave this world. What business is it of mine to judge those outside the church? ....But now I am writing to you that you must not associate with anyone who claims to be a brother or sister but is sexually immoral or greedy, an idolater or slanderer, a drunkard or swindler. Do not even eat with such people."

In 1 Peter 3: "Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect."

Nowhere can you find justification for a Christian saying, "I can't do business with those people because they're 'sinners.'" Jesus Himself provided the counter-example to that idea.

Now, a lot of people don't want to deal with proselytizing. That's okay, as long as you've made it clear that proselytizing is what Christians do, and hiring you means they're going to get it.

Walk into a Hobby Lobby, and you hear Christian music in the background. Walk into my studio, and you hear Christian music in the background.

But as I said, most Christian businesses want to play stealth with their beliefs until someone pushes their particular button. That's a bunch of horse manure.

Simon Patterson's picture

Sorry mate, too many straw men in that for me to even start responding. I'll leave it at that.

Whatever the reason for all of this, I'd say the problem is a lack of formal distinction of (type of) business/services provided.
I'm all against discrimination based on whatever, but using anti-discrimination to force 'optional, semi-artistic semi-personal' services like wedding photography is just nonsense.
While I probably don't share any of her world views, being a wedding photographer (you know, taking pictures with real, non-anonymous people in their private and still one of the most divisive setting) is not like running a restaurant or selling the cake. You do get more involved, get to know the people, make sure they are comfortable with you (shouldn't you be with them too?) and you just don't sell the pictures on the street to anyone - clients choose you and you choose clients and only then everybody's happy (and even then not always).
Also why would anyone want a wedding photographer that somehow 'feels' against their relationship for whatever reason is beyond me.
Of course it's not easy to define what would constitute 'more personal, not over the counter and non-essential business' where the provider would be entitled to consider own preferences about the clients and not be against the law. But as usual, rules and laws coming from extremes screw the way of life 'regular common sense folk' ;)

Dan Grayum's picture

Marriage is sacred, religion is sacred, forcing someone to violate their religious beliefs is wrong.

Dan Grayum's picture

This is well written and I think I see what you are saying. What is considered marriage among human kind isn't always marriage in the eyes of God. I agree with that.

Simon Patterson's picture

I agree. The bible is very clear about what relationships God has joined in what we call "marriage", starting from the beginning when setting up Adam and Eve's relationship, then as confirmed by Jesus, part of which was quoted by Travis McGee.

Other kinds of relationships don't match the biblical understanding of "marriage", even if they are defined by law as a marriage.

Simon Patterson's picture

The bible seems pretty clear about what two becoming one, that God has joined, that no-one should "put asunder", is about. The English language has called that "marriage" for a long time, which is now changing as the English language often does, but we know what it is no matter what you name it.

Not sure what your problem with a guy marrying his brother's widow is, or how that's relevant. Why do you think such a marriage is inferior to any other, that it could be classed as "funny"?

Emmanuel Moka-Moliki's picture

I feel like you are twisting the Word of God to suggest and support you're own viewpoint. Your right the Bible is very clear on a lot of subjects that people today seem to try and reinterpret. Facts Homosexuality, just like every other sexual sin is still a sin. Just because people try to put their own spin on things doesn't mean that it isn't still a sin in the eyes of God. That was the sole reason why Sodom & Gomorrah where destroyed.

In the end we are all sinners and fall short of the Glory of God and that is why WE ALL need forgiveness bought by Jesus Christ on the cross.

I think it's interesting how Christian's who decide to stand on the foundation of God's law are looked at like crazy. But then everybody (and I do mean everybody) that comes around with their own views and ideas are outside of Christianity are merited and protected.

Just to be clear I'm not saying that only gay people are in line for judgement and hell fire, I'm saying we all are if we don't take the free gift of eternal life that God gave through Jesus Christ.

John 3:16 New International Version (NIV)
16 For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.

Romans 10:9-10 New International Version (NIV)
9 If you declare with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. 10 For it is with your heart that you believe and are justified, and it is with your mouth that you profess your faith and are saved.

Eric Mazzone's picture

The sole reason S&G was destroyed was because of the TREATMENT OF GUESTS, sure the poor treatment was by trying to rape the men, but the cultural norm violated was harming guests, how they were harmed doesn't make it double jeopardy. Had they simply beaten the men instead of raping them, they STILL would have been destroyed. Learn your own bible before coming and blasting it elsewhere.

Rob Mynard's picture

I think people forget that marriage is only "sacred" if you are religious. I'm in a loving heterosexual marriage and thats of huge symbolic importance to me personally, but I don't believe in invisible friends so it's not "sacred".

Dan Grayum's picture

Well if you ever change your mind, my invisible friend would like to meet you 😁.

Rob Mynard's picture

haha I'll keep that in mind.

Marriage is sacred, so you would never vote for an adulterer, right? Because they're going to hell and would be unfit to lead others and would set a terrible example.

Dan Grayum's picture

Lets compare apples to apples. I will take your comment and rephrase it to make an accurate comparison since voting for a president and shooting a wedding are not related in the slightest.
Rephrased:" Marriage is sacred, so you would never shoot a straight wedding that the groom or bride is an active and open adulterer?" So the answer to this question is simple. I believe if it is against the photographer's beliefs then they should be able to politely and respectfully decline the job. And my answer is specific to Wedding Photography. This issue is far too complex to create a blanket statement for all services. As for voting, thank God that we live in a free country that doesn't force anyone to vote against their own beliefs, even if that means you don't vote at all.

The topics are definitely related. Because if marriage is sacred (as you say), and you can't photograph a same sex wedding because of that, then you can't possibly vote for an adulterer and give them political power over the country. That would be highly inconsistent and extremely hypocritical.

Dan Grayum's picture

Let me give you a hypothetical question. If YOU are a videographer, and someone tries to hire you to shoot a pornographic film, but YOU don't want to be involved in that industry, should YOU be forced to take the job? and also would YOU vote for an adulterer or a known liar to be president? I will wait for your answer.

You didn't answer my question, so I won't answer yours. Photography of a wedding has nothing to do with photography of porn anyway.

Dan Grayum's picture

I knew you wouldn't answer, it's a loaded question just like the one you asked me. As a side note photographing a wedding and photographing porn has way more in common than voting for someone to be president. But regardless, you are free to your own opinion and I don't mind hearing it, hope you had a Happy Thanksgiving!

Eric Mazzone's picture

Funny how I'm betting YOU personally had a problem with Billy Clinton's adultery and thought that should recuse him from being president. Thus I can only assume that you're a typical trump supporting hypocrite.

Dan Grayum's picture

Lol, you lost that bet. Merry Christmas!

Eric Mazzone's picture

I still doubt that you didn't have a problem with Clinton.

Dan Grayum's picture

I was in 6th grade so... no I didn't really care.

Simon Patterson's picture

I wouldn't vote for an unrepentant adulterer. Not because they're "going to hell", but because they are unfit to lead others and are a terrible example.

On the "going to hell" thing, the bible teaches that we're all "sinners" (ie in rebellion against God, who put us here) and the whole point of Jesus coming to earth is to save us from the consequences of that, because he loves us. Without Jesus doing that, we're all "going to hell" anyway.

If she was a shop/restaurants/bars selling goods/services etc, then I often see signs that they can refuse to serve you if they don't want to (I dont think they have to give a rwason). So why is she being forced almost to photograph something that she is uncomfortable with?

The only difference is that she is running this from her home and not a high street store.

So an establishment can refuse to serve you where does that leave the LGBTQ now?

The world has gone mad with all of this legislation (we never needed it before) and what we can or cannot say to any one. Before we know it even Hello will be ground to sue someone as they may have said it in the wrong tone of voice or manner.

We need to stop this nonsense and get some common sense back into civil society straight away otherwise the only winners will be lawyers.

Last thourght if I was asked to photograph an animal testing lab personell and facilities (no animals in shots) can I refuse due to my belief on animal rights and I just simply say No Thank you. Will I get sued? So whats the difference between this and the items we have been discussing?

Eric Mazzone's picture

So basically, her problem is she wants to be able to TELL PEOPLE why she's turning them down. Not that she doesn't want to do the things, more that she wants to be able to talk down to those she's personally offended by.

Well, she's an idiot tilting at windmills.

Exactly, she could simple tell them she is already booked for that day.

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