A Kentucky appeals court has ruled in favor of a Christian T-shirt owner who, in 2012, refused to print shirts for a local Pride march on the basis of religious liberty.
The case is just the latest to question the rights of religious business owners to deny services to LGBT people. In the past, courts have largely ruled in favor of queer customers turned away from florists, cake-makers and photographers on religious grounds, which makes this case out of Kentucky unique.
The trouble started when organizers of the Lexington Pride Festival commissioned the shirts from Hands on Originals in Lexington. The shirts were to contain a large stylized number 5, signifying the festival’s fifth anniversary.
Owner Blaine Adamson refused to make the shirts, saying he’d be happy to serve LGBT individuals as long as the shirts they ordered didn’t directly promote their sexuality. According to official reports, Adamson believed that because the shirts were “advocating pride in being gay and being homosexual, [he couldn’t] promote that message.”
Citing a Fayette County ordinance prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation, the county’s Human Rights Commission ruled against the store. Adamson then sued to overturn the ruling with a lower court eventually siding with him and invalidating the commission’s finding.
When the case was brought to the appeals court, judges ruled in favor of Hands on Originals in a split 2-1 decision. The majority asserted that the county ordinance did not mean Adamson was required to promote a group’s message if it went against his personal beliefs.
Representing the majority, Judge Joy Kramer wrote: “The right of free speech does not guarantee to any person the right to use someone else’s property. In other words, the ’service’ Hands On Originals offers is the promotion of messages. The ’conduct’ Hands On Originals chose not to promote was pure speech.”
Judge Jeff Taylor wrote in dissent that granting individuals the right to censor the LGBT community’s message would all but render the country’s nondiscrimination ordinance meaningless.
“Effectively, that would mean that the ordinance protects gays or lesbians only to the extent they do not publicly display their same-gender sexual orientation,” he wrote. “This result would be totally contrary to legislative intent and undermine the legislative policy of the Lexington-Fayette Urban County Government, since the ordinance logically must protect against discriminatory conduct that is inextricably tied to sexual orientation or gender identity. Otherwise, the ordinance would have limited or no force or effect.”
While the ruling was not what Lexington Pride organizers had hoped for, a rival Cincinnati T-shirt company did eventually step forward to donate 500 shirts to the festival in a show of solidarity.