The Kentucky Court of Appeals on Friday sided with Hands On Originals, a Lexington business that refused to print T-shirts in 2012 for Lexington’s Gay and Lesbian Services Organization because the company’s owner said he had religious objections to “pride in being gay.”
In a 2-to-1 decision, a panel of appeals judges affirmed an earlier decision by Fayette Circuit Judge James Ishmael, who struck down a finding by the Lexington Human Rights Commission that the business violated the city’s fairness ordinance.
Hands On Originals’ managing owner, Blaine Adamson, refused to print T-shirts for the 2012 Lexington Pride Festival because he disagreed with the shirt’s gay pride message.
“Because of my Christian beliefs, I can’t promote that,” Adamson told a Human Rights Commission hearing officer. “Specifically, it’s the Lexington Pride Festival, the name and that it’s advocating pride in being gay and being homosexual, and I can’t promote that message. It’s something that goes against my belief system.”
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In 2012, the Human Rights Commission said that service refusal violated the city’s fairness ordinance, part of which prohibits businesses which are open to the public from discriminating against people based on sexual orientation.
However, the Court of Appeals disagreed on Friday, ruling that speech is not necessarily protected under the fairness ordinance.
While the ordinance does protect gays and lesbians from discrimination because of their sexual orientation, what Hands On Originals objected to was spreading the gay rights group’s message, Chief Judge Joy A. Kramer wrote in the majority opinion. That is different than refusing to serve the group because of the sexual behavior of its individual members, she wrote. A Christian who owns a printing company should not be compelled to spread a group’s message if he disagrees with it, Kramer wrote.
“The right of free speech does not guarantee to any person the right to use someone else’s property,” Kramer wrote.
“In other words, the ‘service’ Hands On Originals offers is the promotion of messages,” she wrote. “The ‘conduct’ Hands On Originals chose not to promote was pure speech. There is no contention that Hands On Originals is a public forum in addition to a public accommodation. Nothing in the fairness ordinance prohibits Hands On Originals, a private business, from engaging in viewpoint or message censorship.”
In an interview Friday, Adamson said he would not object to printing shirts for gays or lesbians as long as those shirts did not carry a message promoting homosexuality.
“I don’t leave my faith at the door when I walk into my business,” Adamson said. “In my case, fortunately, the legal system worked.”
In his dissenting opinion, Judge Jeff S. Taylor said refusing service because of personal objection to homosexuality is “deliberate and intentional discriminatory conduct … in violation of the fairness ordinance.” Anti-discrimination laws must protect the free speech of minority groups to be successful, Taylor wrote.
“The majority takes the position that the conduct of Hands On Originals in censoring the publication of the desired speech sought by the Gay and Lesbian Services Organization does not violate the fairness ordinance,” Taylor wrote.
“Effectively, that would mean that the ordinance protects gays or lesbians only to the extent they do not publicly display their same-gender sexual orientation,” he wrote. “This result would be totally contrary to legislative intent and undermine the legislative policy of the Lexington-Fayette Urban County Government, since the ordinance logically must protect against discriminatory conduct that is inextricably tied to sexual orientation or gender identity. Otherwise, the ordinance would have limited or no force or effect.”
The Human Rights Commission’s board will review the opinions and decide whether to ask the Kentucky Supreme Court to hear the case, said Ray Sexton, the agency’s executive director.
Sexton said he hopes the losses in court will not weaken enforcement of the city’s fairness ordinance.
“Certainly when cases are decided like this, they may set a precedent for future cases,” Sexton said. “Hopefully that won’t happen here. But we’ll have to take a look at this and see how we’re going to handle it.”
The Gay and Lesbian Services Organization, which now goes by the name the Pride Community Services Organization, said in a statement that it was “disheartened” by Friday’s ruling.
“Hands On Originals’ position relies on the absurd argument that printing a T-shirt with the number 5 on it, with multicolored circles and the words ‘Lexington Pride Festival,’ somehow promotes ‘homosexual activity,’ and that it is their right to censor that ‘speech,’” the group said. “However, this ruling is not about free speech, it is about how LGBTQ+ persons are treated in their communities every day, as second class citizens.”