Commission sides with gay group against Hands On Originals

Lexington's Pride Festival is in its fifth year. The  commemorative T-shirt is the subject of a fairness-ordinance complaint against a printing company.
Lexington's Pride Festival is in its fifth year. The commemorative T-shirt is the subject of a fairness-ordinance complaint against a printing company. submitted

The Lexington-Fayette Urban County Human Rights Commission has sided with the Gay and Lesbian Services Organization in its discrimination complaint against T-shirt printer Hands On Originals, setting up a potential public hearing between the groups.

In a document released by both the GLSO and Hands On Originals, the commission found the company violated the city's fairness ordinance, part of which prohibits businesses open to the public from discriminating against people based on sexual orientation. The commission also noted the company should stop "discriminating because of sexual orientation."

At the center of the issue, which triggered a wave of public criticism and discussion, was the refusal by Hands On Originals to print apparel for the GLSO's annual Pride Festival. Hands On Originals' leader has said he declined the order because the T-shirt vendor is a Christian company and he disagreed with the message of the shirt. The apparel was to include a stylized number 5 on the front with "Lexington Pride Festival" and a list of the sponsors of the fifth edition of the gay pride event on the back.

"We are happy to finally have a declaration from the Human Rights Commission that Hands On Originals did discriminate and they should refrain from discriminating in the future," said Aaron Baker, the GLSO's president. "In some sense, I feel like we've gotten what we were looking for since the Human Rights Commission has agreed with us."

What comes next

Raymond Sexton, the commission's executive director, confirmed the organization has completed its investigation but declined to release its findings since the case is ongoing.

"In this case, we will be moving forward," he said. "Something's going out in the mail today to get both parties to resolve the issue ... but if both parties don't agree to it, then we will move on to the public hearing phase."

In cases such as these, a public hearing is held before an independent hearing examiner, typically a local attorney. The commission's attorney would represent the GLSO in the case, which would be similar to a court proceeding with the examiner ruling on the case. The law does not allow for punitive damages, Sexton has 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. Because of the publicity surrounding the case, the GLSO received the T-shirts for free, as Cincinnati company Cincy Apparel donated the printing of the 500 shirts.

A hearing in the case appears likely, as attorneys for Hands On Originals said in a statement that "the process will continue."

The company is being represented in the case by the Alliance Defending Freedom, a group of Christian attorneys dedicated to "transforming the legal system and advocating for religious liberty, the sanctity of life, and marriage and family," according to the organization's website.

"Americans in the marketplace should not be subject to legal attacks simply for abiding by their beliefs," Alliance Defending Freedom attorney Jim Campbell said in a statement. "The Constitution prohibits the government from forcing business owners to promote messages they disagree with."

Hands On Originals managing owner Blaine Adamson could not be reached for comment, and a spokesman for Alliance Defending Freedom said he would not be available for interviews.

While Baker said the GLSO is not seeking any monetary damages, he said the organization would be cooperative with the commission at a hearing.

"We would support them in whatever way we can, so they can help the hearing officer ... reach the correct conclusion that there was discrimination," Baker said.

Commission's findings

The commission took issue with many of the company's defenses in the case.

Among them was that Adamson rejected the order because of the message of the shirt "that people should be 'proud' about engaging in homosexual behavior or same-sex relationships," according to the company's filing.

The commission wrote in its determination of probable cause that the "message" at issue was one of "identity" and the GLSO's identity is protected under the law that prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation.

If Adamson "truly rejected the shirt based on the message it carried, then he would have rejected it after seeing the T-shirt design rather than immediately upon learning who it was being printed from," the commission wrote.

In a prior filing, Hands On Originals attorneys equated the situation to a black business owner being asked to print a shirt promoting a Ku Klux Klan rally.

But the commission noted the case is different because the Ku Klux Klan is not a group within a protected class of people.

Hands On Originals had also defended its actions by saying it has rejected other shirts with messages it deems objectionable and against its Christian values.

The commission found evidence, though, that Hands On Originals has printed T-shirts with messages that "could be interpreted as crude or in conflict with a person's Christian beliefs."

"The investigation revealed T-shirts which (Hands On Originals) printed as follows; a T-shirt that said 'Size Does Matter,' a design for a brewery with a picture of a man poking his nipple, and a T-shirt with a picture of a horse from behind with the words 'Nice Mass,'" the commission wrote. "The investigation reveals that the T-shirt that GLSO wanted printed did not contain any sort of crude slogan, stated or implied, comparable to those mentioned by (Hands On Originals) or printed by (Hands On Originals)."

In its defense, Hands On Originals had noted it employs gay workers and "has filled past orders for customers who it knew identified as homosexual."

The commission countered that while that may be the case, it "does not eliminate the fact that they denied GLSO business based on their sexual orientation."

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