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DOJ backs Kentucky photographer challenging gay rights law

Posted at 2:24 PM, Feb 27, 2020
and last updated 2020-02-27 14:24:02-05

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) — The U.S. Department of Justice has weighed in on a lawsuit filed by a Kentucky wedding photographer who is challenging a city ordinance banning businesses from discriminating against gay customers.

The Justice Department filed a “statement of interest” this week in federal court saying that the photographer, Chelsey Nelson, is likely to succeed on her claim.

Nelson sued Louisville city officials in November, arguing that the city's ordinance violated the First Amendment. She has written about her business that she “can’t photograph anything that conflicts with my religious conviction that marriage is a covenant relationship before God between one man and one woman,” according to court records.

Nelson is asking the court to block enforcement of the law, known as a fairness ordinance, because she does not want to photograph same-sex weddings.

“Forcing a photographer, against her conscience, to express her support for a wedding that her faith opposes violates the Constitution,” a release from the Justice Department said Thursday.

Nelson has not, according to court records, been forced to photograph a same-sex wedding.

City of Louisville officials have responded to the lawsuit by arguing that Nelson has no cause to challenge the ordinance. Lawyers defending the city government have asked the judge to dismiss the suit.

The American Civil Liberties Union filed a brief defending the city, arguing that the Nelson's intent to offer wedding photography only to heterosexual couples violates the city law.

“Nelson Photography must know who a prospective customer is before deciding whether it will refuse to serve that person,” the ACLU brief said, calling it identity-based discrimination.

The suit echoes a 2018 ruling by the Supreme Court that said Colorado violated the rights of a baker to exercise his religion when it sanctioned him for declining to bake a wedding cake for a gay couple.