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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213 Comments

Previous comments
Studio 403's picture

Regardless of the outcome of the lawsuit, the writer of this post shows her bias favoring the gay community. That makes her a bigot too as she freely writes about the photographer. I don’t give a rip how one operates their business. That is my personal issue, the writer offering her views as one who is judgmental, critical and lame reporting. “Just the facts” said Jack from the oldie Dragnet TV show. I call this pathetic journalism.

Jeff McCollough's picture

She wants to jump from Fstoppers to CNN.

Daryl Alm's picture

Why is it unacceptable for Chelsey Nelson to adhere to her beliefs, and totally acceptable for this author to publicly bully and shame and hate her for it simple because she will not adhere to the beliefs of the author?Bunch of raving sociopaths in here. This article was clearly written with a hate-filled heart towards Christians. This was her soapbox to bully and shame and put down a very rather competent photographer. Since when did
Fstoppers become a far-left social platform?

Benoit Pigeon's picture

Cherry picking is not a way of life. We all purchase products and services not even knowing what the seller's religious, political or emotional believes are. Do you like communists? because you have most certainly purchased product made in Vietnam. So in a way, you support communism either you understand it or not. And because, your phone, shoes, furniture... are cheaper that way, you don't have to admit it to yourself, but you'll go buy Vietnamese made products for at least the next ten years despite communism possibly not being the ideology you support. Are you truly adhering to your believes?

David Pavlich's picture

Here's a thought; why would you want to hire someone/company that doesn't particularly want to do work for you?
This goes back to the baker that didn't want to make a cake for a couple because of their orientation. Why would you want someone baking a cake for you that is forced to do so? I know that if I went into a shop that was run by 'Okay, Boomers' that didn't like gray bearded Boomers like me, I'd take my money where I thought that I'd get the best service or product. Simple.

Douglas Turney's picture

This is a sticky subject and in some ways I can see the point of each side. However society is better off in my opinion when there isn't discrimination. I understand the religious point but only when it involves performing an act that your religion says you shouldn't. If your religion says gay marriage is a sin then don't enter into a gay marriage. However I have yet to see where photographing a gay marriage is a sin. If one argues that photographing a gay marriage is supporting gay marriage and that in itself is a sin for the photographer then could even talking to the gay couple be considered a sin? Sure I understand perhaps a doctor not performing an abortion if their religion says it's a sin but this is because the act of the abortion is the thing their religion forbids.

Most of these refusals seem to be Christian based yet I don't see a huge portion of our Christian society refusing military service based on the religious basis of it being a sin to kill someone.

Another thing is how does any photographer or service provider for a wedding know that the couple doesn't believe in or participate in activities that the photographer or service provider considers to be against their religion? Perhaps the couple getting married believes in an open marriage which would be considered adultery. Or if the photographer is Mormon would they not shoot a wedding where alcoholic beverages are served?

Phillip Breske's picture

As a Libertarian, I do not want the government telling me or any other business owner how we can and should run our businesses. If someone doesn't want to take pictures of a gay wedding, that's their business and it's fine. I don't understand why ANY gay couple would even want to hire someone who doesn't think they should be getting married. (If you're gay and you just want to force someone who hates you to work for you, then you're also an asshole.)

And if you also believe the photographer is wrong to discriminate, then YOU should also avoid hiring them. Eventually, no one except other bigots and racists would hire this person and the business would likely fail, no? PROBLEM SOLVED! Now, if the majority of the people living in the area ARE bigots and racists and the business flourishes, then that is a happy community.

This used to be a free country.

Phillip Breske's picture

Let me be clear that I do support forcing GOVERNMENT agencies to serve and support everyone no matter their gender preference, etc. But I do not support any legislation that imposes that same doctrine on private companies. In other words, when you go to the county clerk for a marriage certificate or building permit, they absolutely must serve you no matter their personal beliefs or objections. If you walk into the local hardware store, on the other hand, I feel they can ask you to leave for any reason they decide to make up. And it’s your right to shop somewhere else.

If you tell somebody that they must service all customers and they are not allowed to deny anyone that's called indentured servitude.
Forcing someone and telling them you must service us even if you don't want to and if you don't we'll send people with guns to drag you away is what this leads to. If someone doesn't want to serve you for any reason then go somewhere else, that's the free market, it works.

Why is Fstoppers becoming a haven for people to write articles about their political views and have almost nothing to do with the actual craft of photography?

The whole purpose of this article is to defame a photographers decision because you don't agree with it. Best part is Jordana, you openly call this other photographer a bigot but you write an article like this which is a textbook definition of you being a bigot. :D Nice job.

Jeff McCollough's picture

Bunch of CNN wannabes.

Jeff Walsh's picture

I'm willing to put a large amount of money down that says this same person shops at stores that aren't run by Christians, bought a car from a dealership that isn't owned by a Christian, shops are a grocery store that isn't Christian, but suddenly their "values" are so important that they can't serve a non-christian couple.

Total hypocrisy, and utter trash beliefs. And none of what I wrote is targeted at Christian beliefs, because those beliefs should be rooted in the Bible which says to do the exact opposite of what is happening here. Jesus served, ate, hung out with, and socialized with the worst of the worst of his time, in multiple cities and places. So for any "Christian" to claim religious views to alienate any people group is totally against the foundation of Christianity. This person is a bigot, and their beliefs that they claim are "Christian" aren't. Their beliefs are bigotry

Dan Grayum's picture

In all of these comments no one hase suggested the best camera and lens for a gay wedding.

Strangely enough,inanimate objects like cameras and lenses don't discriminate about whose wedding it is...
Photographers should be more like their gear.
Just do the job you claim you do...

Stop calling yourself a professional photographer if you'd rather dictate religious beliefs.

What part of the article states that the photographer "dictates" how other people should live? Please convince me you didn't "fill in the blancs" where there weren't any. To be clear: she just does not want to have these people as client and she is clear about that. Those clients are free to go to any other photographer.
Me and my wife don't like to have dogs in our house so we notify guests that they should leave them at home. Are we "dictating" those guest not to have any dogs?
I think that it *is* it's a sign of professionalism to be clear about your criteria, to be up front about your believes.

What part of being a photographer requires anyone to consider the clients beliefs?
No part of being a photographer requires that.

What part of photography involves religious beliefs?
None.

Being a professional means working with people you don't agree with.

Therefore, she is not a professional photographer.

She is, however using her bronze age superstitions as a club against those that don't share them.

David Pavlich's picture

"Being a professional means working with people you don't agree with."

Since when? If I'm going to shoot an event and the client requires something that I don't want to do, I'm going to turn down the work. What I would do is recommend another photographer, but being forced to do a shoot? Yea, right!

Again, I ask, why would anyone want to have someone do work for them that doesn't want to do work for them? It's like the baker that wouldn't make a cake because of the couple's orientation. Force that baker to make the cake and the only way I'd have that person make that cake is if I were there watching EVERY step. Otherwise, one might end up with an eye of newt of toe of frog mixed into the batter. Nobody would notice, but.....

It's called self regulation and it's a key part of Professionalism in the work place.
Don't hang your shingle out as a Professional Photographer if you don't want to take work from certain people.
Instead stay an amateur, taking only the gigs that you find through personal referrals.
A Professional would never let the client know there was something about the client they found distasteful. That would be very unprofessional
I wonder how professional you may be since you don't seem to recognize key components of Professionalism.
Nobody forces anybody to be a Photographer.
Refusing a shoot over differences in unrelated personal matters is very unprofessional.

Phillip Breske's picture

You didn’t mention your own religious beliefs, or if you even have any. Personally, I’m an atheist. But let’s say you have a magazine that wants to hire you to photograph a fake wedding and they will pay you ten thousand dollars for the photos. They plan to use these photos of a fictitious couple pledging to support Donald Trump for a second term. The better your photos are, the more support he will get in the election. Since I’m guessing you’re not a big supporter of Trump, I’m also guessing you wouldn’t be thrilled to shoot this wedding to the best of your abilities, if at all. But the government says you can’t refuse to shoot this wedding for some reason. What are you going to do?

LOL, the people I work for are licking Trump's tonsils from the inside. That's how far up his ass they are.
Look people need to grow up.
Did she advertise herself as a professional photographer?
Did people take her up on it?
Did she then say, oh wait a minute, I only want to shoot certain people and things?
It's on her.
She didn't fulfill her social contract she made by not including the caveat's in her social contract/business advertisement.
I was given an edict by one of my superiors decades ago and I have given it to my subordinates in my turn. That is, I am not allowed to discuss politics, or religion with clients. Period. No exceptions. It is grounds for immediate termination. If a client presses you, that is your response. If they keep on, change the subject. If that doesn't work, excuse yourself.
Client's are quirky, weird, obnoxious, and sometimes disturbed.
It's not for everyone.
Don't even get me started on Sales people....
There are 6 billion people on the planet.
Learn how to get along, grow up and stop acting like children squabbling in the back seat.
So help me if I have to stop the car....

Jeff McCollough's picture

There are tons of things that I won't shoot...does that make me not professional? Nope.

Ummm, yea sounds pretty amateurish to me. I know as someone who hires people, I wouldn't hire you.

Jeffrey R Farmer's picture

Bigot: noun - a person who is intolerant toward those holding different opinions.

Okay, the photographer is a "bigot". The author of this article is a "bigot". Everyone is a "bigot". - We'd better learn to get along.

Phillip Breske's picture

Wait. After thinking about this, I have to know if there are any other photographers that serve this area. If there are not, and the photographer in the article has absolutely no competition, why is she not charging hundreds of thousands of dollars for a wedding? Clearly her work is so scary good that the gay couples in the area are willing to give her their hard-earned money even though she is homophobic. Let me state that again: They know she doesn’t like them, and they still want her business to flourish. She is just that good.

Most people in her shoes would be millionaires by now.

Tom Jensen's picture

All I know is that I need to come up with something controversial like she did. I bet she's booked solid for 2020 with all the press about her. She'll have to put up with some abuse for sure but the haters aren't the ones giving her their money. She should also charge huge to build up her bank account for when her business starts slipping away as her local community slowly catches up to the 21st century.

Phillip Breske's picture

Apparently, the "haters" ARE the ones giving her their money, as they sometimes file suit to MAKE HER AND PEOPLE LIKE HER TAKE THEIR MONEY.

John Dawson's picture

Reason #427 to avoid wedding photography.

Krissa K's picture

As a woman married to a woman, all I can say is... reading these comments shows me that many of my fellow photographers are a lot more bigoted than I would have thought.

Deleted Account's picture

Stick around, Fstoppers is loaded with them, articles like this make them come running.

Deleted Account's picture

You must be new to the Internet ;)

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