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This Kentucky photographer’s free speech should be protected

 Chelsey Nelson is a wedding photographer and blogger in Louisville, Kentucky
Chelsey Nelson is a wedding photographer and blogger in Louisville, Kentucky | (Courtesy of Chelsey Nelson)

In the past several months, federal and state courts have ruled in favor of creative professionals seeking the freedom to promote viewpoints they believed in. In August 2019, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 8th Circuit upheld two filmmakers’ First Amendment rights. And in September, a painter and calligrapher won at the Arizona Supreme Court.

Free speech is winning.

Why is this significant? In the past decade, one legal question has preoccupied Americans. Does the government have the power to force creative professionals to speak messages that violate their religious beliefs? Often, this battle has centered on a creative professionals’ right to decline to create custom art celebrating same-sex wedding ceremonies.

In the summer of 2018, cake artist Jack Phillips won at the U.S. Supreme Court. But, still, there were unanswered questions in the Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission decision. The state of Colorado’s hostility towards Jack’s religious beliefs was so egregious that the Supreme Court didn’t decide the free speech aspect of his case.

Now, some federal courts and state high courts are beginning to answer the questions Masterpiece left behind. And these answers are important to people like Chelsey Nelson, a wedding photographer and blogger in Louisville, Kentucky.

Chelsey is truly an artist. Building a personal relationship with each client is important to her. So first, she meets with a couple to get a sense of their style and of the story about their upcoming wedding. She loves learning about the personal details that make her photographs so special. For example, one couple she photographed got married in the same church as the bride’s parents had 32 years earlier. So Chelsey did her best to capture that wedding by showing the parallels between the bride’s parents and the couple.

Chelsey invests so much personally and artistically in each wedding she photographs, so she wants to make sure she can fully participate in and celebrate each wedding she photographs. As a Christian, she believes that marriage is a union between one man and one woman. She also believes that everything she does in life —i ncluding her business — must honor God.

For that reason, Chelsey cannot use her artistic talents to express messages that go against her beliefs. For example, she will decline to photograph a zombie-themed wedding for anyone — regardless of how they identify — because she believes it undermines the seriousness of marriage. Chelsey also does not photograph same-sex weddings. She serves all people regardless of who they are. There are just some messages and events she does not promote for anyone.

But Chelsey’s First Amendment right to create messages consistent with her beliefs is being threatened.

Officials in the city of Louisville are interpreting a local ordinance in a way that will force Chelsey to blog about or photograph same-sex weddings if she does the same for weddings between a man and woman. The law even prohibits her from directly explaining to clients and potential clients how her religious beliefs about marriage affect the photographs she can and cannot take.

This is clearly a violation of Chelsey’s First Amendment rights. So, with the help of her attorneys at Alliance Defending Freedom, Chelsey has challenged this ordinance in court.

Free speech is winning — and it should win in Chelsey’s case as well. As the recent victories for creative professionals have affirmed, free speech is for everyone — not just for those who agree with the government.

Maureen Collins is a web writer for Alliance Defending Freedom (@AllianceDefends), which represents Chelsey Nelson Photography.

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