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Supreme Court Could Echo Photographer’s Free Speech Victory Over Mandated LGBT Wedding Support

A federal district court ruled that the city violated the First Amendment when threatening to force Chelsey Nelson to violate her conscience.
Jonathan Scruggs
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A federal district court ruled that the city violated the First Amendment when threatening to force Chelsey Nelson to violate her conscience.

Ed. Note: The following piece originally appeared at Fox News.

City officials in Louisville, Kentucky, needed a lesson in free speech and government overreach. Thankfully, a young mom with a small business there provided it, with an assist from the judiciary.

It’s a lesson the U.S. Supreme Court will hopefully reiterate in just a few months to government officials nationwide.

That Louisville mom is Chesley Nelson, an artist who started her own photography studio, Chelsey Nelson Photography. Like many other artists, Chelsey pours herself into her creations while serving her clients with excellence. She joyfully serves clients of all backgrounds, including those who identify as LGBT, but just can’t express messages she disagrees with — whether that is photographs demeaning others or photographs promoting political views she disagrees with. For Chelsey, it’s all about what a photograph communicates, not who asks for it.

But a Louisville law required Chelsey to create photographs and write blog posts celebrating same-sex weddings because she celebrates weddings between a man and woman. Running her business consistent with her beliefs means the city could slap her with investigations, damages, and court orders. Hard to run a business or support a growing family like that.

This went beyond economics, though. While Chelsey developed a love for photography at a young age, she’s primarily focused on weddings. Not only are weddings beautiful and joy-filled events, they signal the beginning of a profound and sacred commitment. Like so many others, Chelsey believes in God’s design for marriage, so she uses her role as photographer to celebrate that idea. Louisville’s law tried to force her to forsake her faith and promote something she doesn’t believe in — to amplify the government-approved view of marriage rather than her own.

That’s where this story transcends even the important topic of marriage. The government shouldn’t be forcing any artist to speak any message they disagree with, whether about marriage or anything else. That basic freedom protects the LGBT graphic artist who doesn’t want to create websites condemning same-sex marriage, the Democrat artist who doesn’t want to create posters promoting the Republican platform, and the Muslim calligrapher who doesn’t want to write flyers promoting Christianity. If the First Amendment protects them, shouldn’t it protect Chelsey, too?

Armed with that common sense, Chelsey, through her attorneys with Alliance Defending Freedom, challenged Louisville’s law, and she recently won big. A federal district court ruled that the city violated the First Amendment when threatening to force her to violate her conscience.

As that court wrote, "the government may not force singers or writers or photographers to articulate messages they don't support. Because speech is categorically different under the federal Constitution, local laws must treat it differently, too." After all, "The freedom of speech—especially for minority views—is a core premise of our democratic republic."

The court got it right. The government shouldn’t be in the business of imposing its orthodoxy on its citizens and silencing those who disagree. You don’t leave your right to free speech behind when you choose to make a living for your family, and Chelsey — like all Americans — should be free to express her beliefs — even if the government disagrees with them.

But Chelsey is not the only wife and mom who needs to teach a class in constitutional law to certain government bureaucrats.

This December, the U.S. Supreme Court will hear 303 Creative v. Elenis, a nearly identical case that involves a graphic artist named Lorie Smith. Lorie wants the same freedom as Chelsey — to create art and websites consistent with the core of who she is. But, much like Louisville, Colorado officials are forcing Lorie to create websites promoting ideas about marriage that violate her faith. Once again, the issue is whether free speech protects each of us or whether government officials get to dictate what people can say and create.

Let’s hope that Chelsey’s case is a "coming attraction" for officials across the country trying to coercively push their agendas rather than protect the freedom of all Americans. Sometimes it takes the courage of those like Chelsey and Lorie to remind officials of basic lessons like these.

Jonathan Scruggs
Senior Counsel, Director of the Center for Conscience Initiatives
Jonathan Scruggs serves as senior counsel and director of the Center for Conscience Initiatives with Alliance Defending Freedom.