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
Sam David's picture

God is clearly punishing her for her views -- She is making her live in Kentucky!

Dennis Johnson's picture

both the bible as the quran are anti gay, quran writes about stoning of men who lay with men. and western law being based on the christian beliefs. being gay was enough to be put in jail. it was a crime according to the law. this only changed not so long ago. after the woman got the right to vote. google "Sodomy laws".

Robert Montgomery's picture

Nobody wants to be told what to do . I understand that especially if it goes against your beliefs . But, as a photographer open to the public, I take on all. She has to realize that she is providing a service, not an endorsement . She is walking over a dollar . I looked at her work, and in my opinion, its what you would expect, cookie cutter wedding shots . Nothing grabbed me. Wouldn't "I don't think my style would fit your need", be better than a lawsuit ; or is she being used herself. A decline like above would not compromise her moral compass and provide a tactful way out.

Donald Holmes's picture

No artist should be compelled by law to go against their religious or moral convictions. It is a simple matter of Liberty.

The Arizona Supreme Court recently ruled on a similar case with Justice Gould writing "Duka and Koski’s beliefs about same-sex marriage may seem old-fashioned, or even offensive to some. But the guarantees of free speech and freedom of religion are not only for those who are deemed sufficiently enlightened, advanced, or progressive. They are for everyone.”

How can any enlightened person believe that these freedoms don't apply to Christian artists?

Dave F's picture

Using religious beliefs to justify discrimination does not make you discriminated against when you're told you can't discriminate.

Dennis Johnson's picture

so i guess you are pro taking away someones freedom, free speech and freedom of religion? what do you think of me wearing my MAGA hat ? is that okay or not ? freedom is fundamental for a democratie. when that basic freedom falls away we are talking about an oppressive state that forces you to do things against your will and beliefs. like china. is that what you are for ? a gay couple has the right to do business with anyone they want. they cant force someone to do business with them. forcing someone to do something against their will is a very very scary thing. this discussion is about freedom. not about discrimination.

Dave F's picture

Lots of rhetoric here, little substance.

First of all, most of what you wrote is attacking things I never said (or even alluded to). Bringing MAGA hats into this? Seriously? That just shows where your head is.

Second, it’s sophistic to imply that a gay couple is forcing anybody to shoot their wedding. “Force” implies that they are mandating that someone do something regardless of any other circumstances. If the photographer is already booked for that date and the couple points a gun at them and says “it’s not an option”, THAT’S forcing somebody to do something. But in this case, what you call “force” is actually a legal response to the PHOTOGRAPHER’s transgression.

1) Couple asks photographer to shoot their wedding
2) Photographer says no because they’re gay
3) Couple probably wouldn’t pursue it further because who wants to deal with that noise, but they would have a right to claim discrimination. That’s what this is about.

The couple isn't at fault here because the photographer made the mistake first.

All that aside, here’s how I know that this is about discrimination and not about “practicing religion”.

There are a whole host of things the bible says are wrong, for which this photographer (and you) probably wouldn’t apply the same standard. Sex before marriage? That’s a sin. Is she screening couples for that? Is she making sure they attend church every Sunday before she agrees to shoot their wedding? How about taking the lord’s name in vain. Is she verifying that they’ve never done that? These aren’t just petty suggestions in the bible, they’re in the 10 Commandments. You know, the end-all-be-all of rules for Christians. And let’s not even talk about the hypocrisy of refusing to shoot a gay couple’s wedding but never giving a second thought as to what the priest presiding over the wedding has done in his private chambers. Is that on her survey?

Any one of these would be immediate disqualifiers if she were applying religious beliefs indiscriminately. However, I’d be willing to bet that she isn’t, and what’s really happening is that she’s discriminating first and then using religion to justify her actions. And that’s even more despicable.

Dennis Johnson's picture

that came from a deep dark place. i disagree so you cant be right. and for accusing a priest for what he might have done in his private chambers, do you know him? sex before marriage ? do you know her ? in beliefs and religion you have many different levels. not every muslim is out to kill non-believers or stone gays. even doh it says so in the quran. you even have gay muslims and christians. but some things we can accept these days and others we cant. for her it is the being forced by a law to do something she feels is morally wrong. personally i really couldnt care less what people do in their bedroom as long as they are adults and it doesnt have a tail. but being forced to do something against your will is very very wrong and that is what i take from this. her choice is taken away by the "Louisville’s Fairness Ordinance". i believe very much in human rights and free speech. she has the right to say no to something she doesnt want to do and shouldnt be forced to do it or face a fine. thats the whole point for me. and to be honest i think this article and thing is being made bigger than it should be. if she would just explain why she cant do that marriage i cant think of anyone who would make a big deal out of it. i wouldnt want to force anyone doing my marriage reception who hates what i stand for. my guess is that the gay couple would feel the same. but it does give a bad feeling from their perspective to hear something like that with that argument. i hope for the gay couple they did get married and found a great photographer who made awesome pics of their marriage. and above all i hope they are very very happy and live a very long life together. but point stands nobody should be forced to do anything against their will. have a nice day Dave.

Stewart Norton's picture

This is a tricky one for me and it begs the question who's rights are right !!. We had a case similar to this in the UK a few years ago with a baker from Ireland who refused to make a wedding cake for a gay couple on religious grounds. The case was long and opened up a whole debate on gay rights Vs religious rights in the end the baker's won the case.

Chris Charles's picture

Has Chelsea considered moving. I am sure she would be a lot more comfortable in Iran.

Dennis Johnson's picture

and thats what speaking without thinking looks like.

Grandon Smith's picture

Tricky as I see severe credibility for both sides. I almost don’t want to post anything so I don’t have to offend anyone nor put a statement that is taken as a blanket statement the wrong way. Generally speaking though, not a perfect way to run a business not many followers and already spending some needed cash on lawyers. Maybe I am loose in thinking my beliefs and will be scorned in church on Sunday, but at some point all of us will soon realize we need each other. We need to understand how to tolerate, and that tolerate is different than joining in participation and much different than trying to understand. I have friends on both side of the fence, you may think I am neutral, but really it is not my opinion that matters. My tolerance maybe higher or lowers than others for many things. Do we need to stay isolated or do we need to stay shielded? Why shields, what is changing in your heart that makes you choose a shield. I have often said things like it doesn’t affect my marriage and my happiness, so why do I need to form an opinion now, and why do I have to shield myself. It was just this moment of understanding why, that makes me ask. It doesn’t appear the photographer’s actions are of hate, but sound like fear. Curious because it isn’t contagious. So if it desire to be isolated then when you need others don’t prejudge that hand that reaches out to help.

Peter Duffy's picture

This should be very disturbing to everyone; except of course to the extremist leftist 'woke' type people. I am nearly 50 years old. When I was growing up and before identity politics poisoned humanity, deciding on one thing over another was called making a choice. Very simple, you do what you want to do and no one could force you to do something against your will.

Well, now that has all changed, with the evil of identity politics and victimhood. Not wanting to photograph a gay wedding is the absolute inalienable right of anyone to make that choice. By FORCING someone against their will to do something they find offensive is unlawful, it is BULLYING and to prosecute them is revenge not justice.

Take this example, I am not an attractive nearly 50 year old, I am overweight and most women would not want anything to do with me. So let's say I wanted to have sex with a really gorgeous 20 something woman with an amazing body. So I go up to her and say "let's have sex". She looks at me and says "no way!" Well, according to the evil extremist leftist ideology of bullying people into submission, my reply to the gorgeous blonde would be "Oh you are discriminating against me just 'cause I'm fat! I'm going to sue you!". Just how do you think that wold go down? Didn't Western countries teach women they had the right to say NO!!!?? Yes they did, women have the right to say no to men and the same the other way round. Except the rules have now been wickedly perverted to suit a small minority of really nasty selfish people who think they have the right to bully others to do things against their will. Well YOU DON'T!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

If a photographer doesn't want to work with you, just find someone who will, you have no right to wreck someone's life just because they don't want to work with you. Just like no one has the right to force someone to have sex with them, that is called RAPE!!!!!!