Hands On Originals T-shirt company accused of discrimination

ssloan@herald-leader.comMarch 26, 2012 

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This is the design for front of the proposed T-shirt.

PHOTO COURTESY GAY AND LESBIAN SERVICES ORGANIZATION OF LEXINGTON

Popular Lexington T-shirt printer Hands On Originals has triggered a wave of criticism after telling organizers of Lexington's annual gay pride festival that it would not produce apparel for the event because Hands On is a Christian company.

On Monday, the Gay and Lesbian Services Organization of Lexington, which organizes the June festival, filed a discrimination complaint with the city's Human Rights Commission.

"Hands On Originals does a lot of business in this town, and people should be aware of the situation, so they can make an informed decision about whether they want to buy from them," said Aaron Baker, president of GLSO's board of directors.

Baker said the organization had gotten quotes from a number of Central Kentucky T-shirt companies, including Hands On Originals, and had selected it as the best local bid. The T-shirts for the fifth annual event were to include a stylized number 5 on the front along with "Lexington Pride Festival" and the event's sponsors on the back.

Baker said Hands On Originals co-owner Blaine Adamson told the GLSO in a follow-up call that the company was declining the order "because we're a Christian organization" but had found another company that would honor its price.

"It came as a shock because many of us are Christians, too, and what's that have to do with anything?" Baker said. He said a Pentecostal church meets weekly at GLSO's Pride Center.

Hands On Originals declined to discuss its decision and instead issued the following statement to the Herald-Leader:

"Hands On Originals both employs and conducts business with people of all genders, races, religions, sexual preferences and national origins," said an owner of the company, Blaine Adamson. "However, due to the promotional nature of our products, it is the prerogative of the company to refuse any order that would endorse positions that conflict with the convictions of the ownership."

Adamson declined Monday afternoon to address follow-up questions.

The case is a rarity for the Lexington-Fayette Urban County Human Rights Commission, Executive Director Raymond Sexton said. Typically, complaints are filed by individuals rather than organizations, but an organization-versus-organization complaint is permitted, he said.

The commission serves "to safeguard all individuals within Lexington-Fayette County from discrimination because of race, color, religion, national origin, sex, age, disability, familial status and sexual orientation/gender identity in connection with employment, housing and public accommodations," according to its Web site.

With a complaint filed, the commission, which is a neutral agency, will send a letter to Hands On Originals requesting a written response. A formal investigation will then be conducted that looks into the company's business practices.

"If you have other organizations using their services and they've made T-shirts for them, and this organization is not allowed and the only difference is sexual orientation, that could be problematic," Sexton said.

Hands On Originals is subject to the law because it deals in goods and services to the public, Sexton said.

He said Hands On Originals' explanation to the GLSO that it's a Christian organization would not make it exempt from the law.

"Religious exemption is a valid defense under the local ordinance, but it's typically reserved for churches," Sexton said. "If you're Hands On Originals, you're a business, not a religious organization. You're into T-shirts."

Unless the parties settle the case, the investigation could lead to a public hearing at which compensatory damages could be issued to the GLSO should the independent hearing examiner find in its favor. The law does not allow for punitive damages, Sexton said, but compensatory damages could account perhaps for the cost of time spent researching other T-shirt printers or higher costs associated with ordering from a different company.

Several publicly financed organizations, including the city government and University of Kentucky, do business with Hands On Originals or its affiliated company, Wildcat Wearhouse, which produces UK sports apparel. Sexton said there would be no legal mandate requiring those governmental organizations to cease doing business with the company if it is found to have violated the ordinance.

"It's mostly public opinion. That backlash might be far greater than anything else that might happen through any administrative process," he said.

A wave of critical public opinion already hit the company online beginning Friday, after the GLSO posted a description of the issue on its Web site Thursday evening.

A Facebook group called "Boycott Hands on Originals" had more than 1,000 members by Monday afternoon. Another Facebook group boycotting the company and Wildcat Wearhouse had 52 members. Baker said the GLSO did not organize either page.

Hands On Originals' own Facebook page has not been available since Friday. Members of the boycott group said criticism had been posted on Hands On Originals' Facebook wall.

Complaints also were posted on Twitter by Lexington residents, including Caitlin Neal.

"What bothered me personally is for anyone as a Christian to say we're doing this on behalf of all Christians," she said. "It's just kind of ridiculous."

The GLSO's Baker said the outpouring of support online confirms his long-held conviction that Lexington "is a very fair-minded city."

"It's interesting to see how much this has touched people in the community who have said this is not acceptable," he said. "Nothing may come out of this except the city saying yes, they discriminated, and that was wrong.

"But even if that's all that happens, our board felt it was important to stand up."

Scott Sloan: (859) 231-1447. Twitter: @HeraldLeaderBiz.

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