Politics & Government

Kentucky Supreme Court hears case over Christian’s refusal to print gay pride t-shirt

A look at the Lexington Pride Festival through the years

Photos from the Lexington Pride Festival through the years. Music: https://www.bensound.com
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Photos from the Lexington Pride Festival through the years. Music: https://www.bensound.com

The Kentucky Supreme Court on Friday was asked to decide if a Christian-owned T-shirt printer in Lexington violated the city’s fairness ordinance by refusing to make shirts for the 2012 Pride Festival, citing the owner’s religious objections to “pride in being gay.”

The Lexington Human Rights Commission ruled against Hands On Originals that year for violating the fairness ordinance, part of which prohibits businesses that are open to the public from discriminating against people based on their sexual orientation. The store was not fined, but it was ordered to cease such practices in the future and send its staff to sensitivity training.

The business appealed and won favorable decisions in Fayette Circuit Court and at the Kentucky Court of Appeals.

At issue is a shirt with the words “Lexington Pride Festival” and the number five, representing the event’s fifth anniversary that year. The number had tiny rainbow dots inside of it.

On Friday, an attorney for Hands On Originals told the Supreme Court that the printer does not discriminate against any group. However, it reserves the right to not print “messages” on its shirts that conflict with the sincerely held beliefs of managing owner Blaine Adamson, said Jim Campbell, senior counsel for the Alliance Defending Freedom, a conservative Christian nonprofit.

“The one thing that matters to them is the message that they’re asked to print, not the person who’s requesting it from them,” Campbell said in oral arguments before the court.

Hands On Originals has made shirts for a diverse customer base, including a lesbian musician who performed at the 2012 Pride Festival, Adamson added. In those cases, there were no objections to the messages on the shirt, he said.

Ed Dove, a lawyer for the Human Rights Commission, said that once businesses open their doors to the public, they don’t get to select which customers they want to serve based on the person’s race, gender, religion or sexual orientation. That’s the entire purpose of civil rights laws generally and Lexington’s fairness ordinance specifically, Dove told the justices.

The Pride Festival organizers weren’t asking Hands On Originals to personally express a political opinion, Dove said, they simply were asking the printer to replicate a design on cloth.

“The fact is, as Mr. Campbell has admitted to this court, Hands On Originals practices censorship,” Dove said. “They want you and this court to affirm the fact that they can pick and choose who they want to serve based on the message.”

As more cities and states around the country have extended civil-rights protection to people based on sexual orientation, courts have been asked to settle disputes when business owners cite their religious beliefs as a reason not to provide services.

Last year, the U.S. Supreme Court wrote a narrowly tailored decision that sided with a Colorado baker who refused to create a wedding cake for a gay couple. But the high court did not resolve the issue the Kentucky Supreme Court was asked to address on Friday, whether a business owner’s First Amendment right to free expression trumps civil-rights protection.

During questioning, some of Kentucky’s Supreme Court justices posed hypothetical questions about what other shirts might be rejected if printers have the right to set their own standards about the “messages” on the shirts.

“If I wanted a T-shirt printed that said ‘A woman’s place is on the Supreme Court,’ would they call me back and ask me why I wanted that?” Justice Michelle Keller of Covington asked Dove.

“That’s the point we’re making here,” Dove replied. “Now, Hands On Originals can take that and say, ‘We don’t agree that a woman’s place is on the Supreme Court. Therefore, we’re not making that T-shirt.’ If that’s the ruling of this court, then that is exactly — because sex is a protected class — that is the slope we’re on here.”

Responding to those hypothetical questions, Campbell said that in certain cases, if a business owner held sincere and consistently demonstrated beliefs, other shirts also could be rejected, such as shirts for a Mormon youth camp if the printer believed the Mormon church was a cult. Nobody in court was saying that Hands On Originals held that belief.

However, Campbell said, Hands On Originals has always agreed to find another printer for people when it rejects an order, as it attempted to for the Lexington Pride Festival.

Justice Samuel Wright III of Whitesburg told Campbell he is concerned with the idea of minority groups trying to express themselves being turned away by businesses that are legally free to reject them.

“If the message is not popular and everyone says ‘I will not print it, I have an objection and I cannot print it,’ then we have eliminated free speech,” Wright said. “We are making a rule of law. And I have some difficulties with anything that limits speech.”