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21 states unite in support of KY photographer's artistic freedom

Friend-of-the-court briefs filed with 6th Circuit in support of ADF free speech lawsuit

Thursday, Mar 2, 2023

CINCINNATI – Twenty-one states are among the friend-of-the-court briefs filed Wednesday with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit in support of Chelsey Nelson, a Louisville-based photographer and blogger who successfully challenged a city law that required her to create photographs and write blogs expressing a view of marriage that contradicted her beliefs.

Alliance Defending Freedom attorneys represent Nelson who serves clients regardless of their backgrounds while specializing in photographing, editing, and blogging about weddings. ADF attorneys filed the lawsuit, Chelsey Nelson Photography v. Louisville-Jefferson County Metro Government, to stop the city of Louisville from threatening Nelson and violating her First Amendment rights by forcing her to create messages that go against her faith.

“Free speech is for everyone. No one should be forced to say something they don’t believe,” said ADF Legal Counsel Bryan Neihart. “We urge the 6th Circuit to uphold the district court’s ruling that found the city of Louisville violated Chelsey’s First Amendment rights. Chelsey, and creative professionals we represent in other cases, have suffered real harm from public accommodation laws trampling their freedom of speech. Every American should be free to speak and work according to their deeply held beliefs.”

In August 2022, a federal district court ruled Nelson is free to use her creative talents to speak messages that align with her religious beliefs about marriage. As the district court recognized, the case is similar to another ADF case currently before the U.S. Supreme Court—303 Creative v. Elenis—involving Colorado graphic artist and website designer Lorie Smith. The city of Louisville appealed the district court’s ruling, sending this case to the 6th Circuit.

“Forcing Nelson to create custom speech for a same-sex wedding when she objects to the message that speech conveys is compelled speech, which violates the Free Speech Clause. And forcing her to do the same in violation of her sincerely held religious beliefs without the City adequately showing why it cannot accommodate her, violates Kentucky’s [Religious Freedom Restoration Act],” the brief led by the state of Kentucky, and joined by 20 other states, explains.

An Oregon cake shop owner also filed a brief in support of Nelson, writing, “[C]oercing speech from small business owners will not lead to the utopian marketplace [Louisville] envision[s]. Instead, it will force creative artists to close their business doors, destroying their livelihoods and creating inferior markets for all…. Original artwork requires broad First Amendment protection to ensure artists are not forced to use their expressive gifts to communicate messages antithetical to their beliefs.”

  • Pronunciation guide: Neihart (NIGH'-hart)

Alliance Defending Freedom is an alliance-building, non-profit legal organization committed to protecting religious freedom, free speech, parental rights, and the sanctity of life.

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