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Federal judge rules Louisville’s anti-discrimination ordinance violates religious rights

Local photographer Chelsey Nelson has been challenging Louisville's Fairness Ordinance in court since 2019.
Courtesy of Alliance Defending Freedom
Local photographer Chelsey Nelson has been challenging Louisville's Fairness Ordinance in court since 2019.

A federal judge ruled Tuesday in favor of a photographer who challenged Louisville’s Fairness Ordinance.

The local law was passed by the Louisville Board of Alderman — the pre-merger local legislative body — in 1999 to prevent discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. It threatens businesses with fines if they fail to provide the same services to everyone, regardless of their orientation. 

Local photographer Chelsey Nelson has been challenging the ordinance since 2019, saying it requires her to violate her Christian beliefs. Represented by lawyers from the conservative group Alliance Defending Freedom, Nelson said she refused to “create, promote, or participate in anything that dishonors God.”

U.S. District Court Judge Benjamin Beaton sided with Nelson, ruling that the Fairness Ordinance violates the Kentucky Religious Freedom Act because it “substantially burdens” her ability to “act or refuse to act” based on her deeply held religious beliefs. Beaton admitted that Nelson’s claim likely wouldn’t stand up to scrutiny based on the U.S. Constitution, but said Kentucky has passed stricter freedom of religion laws.

Although the city never imposed any fines or fees against Nelson, the judge barred local authorities from doing so in the future.

“The City and those acting on its behalf may not invoke [the ordinance] to compel Nelson to provide her wedding photography services for same-sex wedding ceremonies or otherwise express messages inconsistent with Nelson’s beliefs,” Beaton wrote.

In response to the ruling, Alliance Defending Freedom Legal Counsel Bryan Neihart said no one should be forced to say something they don’t believe.

“We’re pleased the court agreed that the city violated Chelsey’s First Amendment rights,” Neihart said in a statement. “The court’s decision sends a clear and necessary message to every Kentuckian—and American—that each of us is free to speak and work according to our deeply held beliefs.”

Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer called the ruling “disappointing” and said the city will likely appeal.

“We are a city of compassion and we appreciate the many ways our LGBTQ+ family contributes to our diverse community,” Fischer said. “Louisville Metro Government will continue to enforce to the fullest extent possible its ordinance prohibiting anti-discriminatory practices and will fight against discrimination in any form.”

The U.S. Supreme Court is expected to weigh in on a similar case during its next term.

Roberto Roldan is the City Politics and Government Reporter for WFPL. Email Roberto at rroldan@lpm.org.

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