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Meet Chelsey Nelson, the Kentucky Photographer Standing Up for Free Speech

Alliance Defending Freedom
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News You Should Know: Wrapping Up 2019
Update: August 31, 2022 - A federal district court ruled that Chelsey is free to use her creative talents to speak messages that align with her religious beliefs about marriage. Read the press release here.

Over the past several years, we’ve seen local governments trying to force artists and business owners to use their talents to express messages with which they disagree. It’s certainly a disturbing trend.

But recently, we’ve seen another trend. These creative professionals are winning in court.

In August 2019, filmmakers Carl and Angel Larsen won at the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit. In September 2019, painter Breanna Koski and calligrapher Joanna Duka won at the Arizona Supreme Court. And in October 2019, Blaine Adamson , the owner of promotional print shop Hands on Originals, won at the Kentucky Supreme Court.

But there are still many artists out there who live in places where the government has tried to force them to create art that expresses messages against their beliefs.

Take, for example, Chelsey Nelson, a photographer and blogger in Louisville, Kentucky. Read more about her case below.

 

Photographer Chelsey Nelson of Louisville, Kentucky, is seen at work.
Photographer Chelsey Nelson of Louisville, Kentucky, is seen at work.

 

Who is Chelsey Nelson?

When Chelsey Nelson was seven years old, a tornado damaged her family’s home. Thankfully, Chelsey and her family survived the devastating storm. Later, they were taken in by a family from their church—and God used this difficult time in Chelsey’s life to create something new.

During the time Chelsey spent living at her church friends’ home, she fell in love with photography and storytelling. She spent hours looking through the family’s photo albums and felt a deep connection to that family through their photographs. It was then that she realized the power of photographs to capture meaningful moments in people’s lives.

Today, through her studio, Chelsey Nelson Photography, Chelsey uses her photography skills to capture one of the most meaningful moments of her customers’ lives—their wedding day. Chelsey photographs and blogs about all her clients. She wants every wedding photo she takes to tell a story about the unique personalities of the couple.

Because of this, Chelsey prioritizes building relationships with her clients. She often invites couples into her home to get to know them over chocolate chip cookies. She crafts a timeline for their wedding as they prepare for the big day and then schedules an engagement session to make sure they have some great photos and are comfortable in front of the camera before their wedding day.

Chelsey also enjoys celebrating each couple’s marriage by posting wedding photographs and writing encouraging posts about the couple on her blog.

It is Chelsey’s personal touch and skills that help make her photographs unique. That’s why she can’t create photos or blogs that express messages which go against her deepest held beliefs.

 

Chelsey Nelson Photography v. Louisville-Jefferson County Metro Government

Chelsey’s beautiful photographs and blogs celebrate the lifelong commitment of marriage between one man and one woman. Chelsey believes every photograph she takes and blog she writes must be consistent with her faith. And as she invests so much personally and artistically into her photographs and blogs, she wants to make sure she can participate in and celebrate weddings consistent with her beliefs.

Louisville, where Chelsey lives, interpreted a law to force Chelsey to participate in same-sex weddings and use her photography and blogging skills to promote same-sex weddings because she does so for weddings between one man and one woman.

Chelsey serves everyone, but she cannot promote all messages—especially messages that go against her deeply held religious beliefs about marriage. There are many ways Chelsey’s photography studio would serve clients in the LGBT community.

And there are many messages that contradict Chelsey’s religious views that she simply cannot promote. For example, Chelsey cannot create photographs that demean others, devalue God’s creation, or contradict biblical principles.

But, under Louisville’s law, Chelsey faced substantial penalties including damages, court orders, and compliance reports if she declined to promote same-sex weddings.

This violated Chelsey’s First Amendment rights. So she decided to challenge the law in court.

 

What’s at stake?

Free speech is for everyone, not just those who agree with the government.

The government should not force artists like Chelsey to express messages contrary to their beliefs. Chelsey is standing up for her right to free speech. And her stand protects even those who disagree with her views because the First Amendment protects everyone, no matter what side of an issue you land on.

Free speech is winning. The last several years have seen creative professionals win in court. And that’s how it should be. No one should be forced to convey a message they disagree with or be punished by the government for not doing so.

 

Case timeline

  • November 2019: Chelsey Nelson filed a complaint against the city of Louisville.
  • February 2020: The United States Department of Justice filed a statement of interest in support of Chelsey. The statement argued that “[f]orcing Ms. Nelson to create expression and to participate in a ceremony that violates her sincerely held religious beliefs invades her First Amendment rights.”
  • August 2020: A federal district issued an order halting enforcement of the Louisville law while Chelsey’s artistic freedom lawsuit moves forward in court.
  • August 2022: A federal district court ruled that Chelsey is free to use her creative talents to speak messages that align with her religious beliefs about marriage and to publicly promote her views on marriage.

 

Outcome

The district court’s decision affirmed that the city had violated Chelsey’s First Amendment rights.

“[T]he Constitution does not permit governments to promote their perceptions of fairness by extinguishing or conditioning the free expression of opposing perceptions of the common good,” the court wrote.

The court also explained that “[t]he Supreme Court, like Orwell, has long recognized the risk that compelled speech may ‘turn the writer, and every other kind of artist as well, into a minor official, working on themes handed down from above.’”

“The First Amendment exists,” said the court, to “keep the artist’s expression truly free.”

 

The bottom line

Artists should be free to choose the messages they promote.

 

Learn more about Chelsey Nelson's case:

 

Watch:

ADF Senior Counsel Kate Anderson discusses Chelsey’s case:

Alliance Defending Freedom
Non-profit organization
ADF is the world's largest legal organization committed to protecting religious freedom, free speech, the sanctity of life, marriage and family, and parental rights.