Politics & Government

Kentucky Supreme Court dismisses suit over company’s refusal to print gay pride shirt

The Kentucky Supreme Court on Thursday dismissed a discrimination claim against a Christian-owned T-shirt printer in Lexington that was accused of violating the city’s fairness ordinance by refusing to make shirts for the 2012 Pride Festival because of religious objections to “pride in being gay.”

However, the court sidestepped debates over civil rights and the freedoms of religion and speech by ruling on a legal technicality, that the party that brought the claim — the Gay and Lesbian Services Organization — lacked the statutory standing to do so because it was not the party denied service by the business.

The unidentified individual who asked to have the gay pride shirts printed at Hands On Originals and who was turned away would be the correct party under Kentucky law to bring the claim, the court said. But it was GLSO, an organization, that filed the complaint with the Lexington Human Rights Commission, the court said.

“Without a proper complainant, no determination can be made as to whether the ordinance was violated,” Justice Laurance VanMeter of Lexington wrote for the court’s majority.

“While this result is no doubt disappointing to many interested in this case and its potential outcome, the fact that the wrong party filed the complaint makes the discrimination analysis almost impossible to conduct, including issues related to freedom of expression and religion,” VanMeter wrote.

Pride Shirt.jpg
Hands On Originals refused to print this T-shirt design for the 2012 Lexington Pride Festival. Photo Provided

Four justices signed onto VanMeter’s opinion. Justice Debra Lambert did not hear this case.

Justice David Buckingham of Murray wrote a concurring opinion in which he sharply criticized the Lexington Human Rights Commission for going “beyond its charge of preventing discrimination in public accommodation and instead attempt(ing) to compel Hands On to engage in expression with which it disagreed.”

While the government can enforce civil-rights laws to protect people from discrimination in public accommodations, it should not force businesses to express certain kinds of speech that they find objectionable, Buckingham wrote. And for Hands On Originals, the act of printing shirts celebrating gay pride would be expressing a message, he wrote.

“When expression is involved, whether a parade organizer, a newspaper or a t-shirt company, a publisher may discriminate on the basis of content, even if that content relates to a protected classification,” Buckingham wrote.

The Lexington Human Rights Commission ruled against Hands On Originals in 2012 for violating the city’s 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.

Attorneys for Hands On Originals co-owner Blaine Adamson swiftly praised the court’s decision.

“Today’s decision makes clear that this case never should have happened,” said Jim Campbell, senior counsel for the Alliance Defending Freedom, a Christian nonprofit.

“For more than seven years, government officials used this case to turn Blaine’s life upside down, even though we told them from the beginning that the lawsuit didn’t comply with the city’s own legal requirements,” Campbell said. “The First Amendment protects Blaine’s right to continue serving all people while declining to print messages that violate his faith. Justice David Buckingham recognized this in his concurring opinion, and no member of the court disagreed with that.”

Raymond Sexton, executive director of the Lexington Human Rights Commission, said he is reviewing the decision. Any further action would have to be discussed by the full commission at its next meeting, Sexton said.

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 nation’s high court — like Kentucky’s — did not resolve the larger issue the parties want addressed in these cases: whether a business owner’s First Amendment right to free expression trumps civil-rights protection.

John Cheves is a government accountability reporter at the Lexington Herald-Leader. He joined the newspaper in 1997 and previously worked in its Washington and Frankfort bureaus and covered the courthouse beat.
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