DOJ Backs Photographer Over Free Speech Claim

The Justice Department (DOJ) has filed a brief in a federal court defending a photographer who is challenging a law that would force her to work at same-sex weddings in violation of her religion.

The department filed a statement of interest at a district court in Kentucky on Feb. 27 explaining that the photographer, Chelsey Nelson, is likely to succeed in her lawsuit against Louisville/Jefferson County Metro Government and its officials over a law that requires her to photograph same-sex weddings against her conscience.

The department argued that the law violates the Free Speech Clause of the First Amendment, as the clause prohibits the government from compelling people to engage in speech that supports or promotes another persons expressive event like a wedding ceremony.

“The First Amendment forbids the government from forcing someone to speak in a manner that violates individual conscience,” Eric Dreiband, assistant attorney general for the Civil Rights Division, said in a statement.

In the case at hand, Nelson, a Christian, owns and operates a photograph studio in Louisville, Kentucky, according to the brief (pdf). She says she uses her photography to tell stories and declines requests for wedding celebrations and boutique editing services that require her to use her skills to portray “anything immoral, dishonorable to God, or contrary to [her] religious beliefs.”

She said that she would not provide services for wedding celebrations that certain types of weddings, including same-sex weddings, because it contravenes the belief that marriage is between a man and a woman. But she said she would provide other services to individuals regardless of sexual orientation.

Nelson sued the county government seeking to block any enforcement action against her for violating its ordinance prohibiting discrimination in public accommodations based on sexual orientation.

The lawsuit centers around whether a government can force a wedding photographer to provide her services in weddings that they do not wish to photograph or promote.

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