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?)

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)

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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