A Christian printer in Kentucky has prevailed in what has been a long court battle for free speech and religious liberty. The trouble began after he refused to print t-shirts that promoted a gay pride event.
The owner of Hands on Originals, Inc. (HOO) was forced to bring an original action in Fayette Circuit Court after the Lexington-Fayette Urban County Human Rights Commission found that they discriminated against the Gay and Lesbian Services Organization (GLSO). GLSO says its mission is to “provide support and services to the GLBTQQIA (Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, Questioning, Intersex, and Asexual/Aromantic) community.”
GLSO claimed that Blaine Adamson, the manager and an owner of HOO, violated the Lexington-Fayette Urban County Government’s public accommodation ordinance (“fairness ordinance”).
The business refuses to print items it deems morally objectionable, like adult entertainment products and establishments, the court’s opinion said. HOO has also refused to promote certain images, including the word “bitches” or Jesus depicted as either a pirate or selling fried chicken.
The controversy began when an individual with GLSO tried to place an order for t-shirts that bore the words “Lexington Pride Festival 2012,” the number “5,” and rainbow-colored circles circling the number 5. Adamson told the caller, “I know that this will upset you, but because of my Christian beliefs, I can’t promote that.” Soon after that, the GLSO President Aaron Baker filed a complaint with the Commission alleging the HOO had discriminated against the organization based on sexual orientation and gender identity.
The HOO business prints customized t-shirts, pens, mugs, and other items. HOO’s website provides:
“Hands On Originals both employs and conducts business with people of all genders, races, religions, sexual preferences, and national origins. However, due to the promotional nature of our products, it is the prerogative of Hands On Originals to refuse any order that would endorse positions that conflict with the convictions of the ownership.”
The order of the Commission in 2012 stated in part:
“[HOO] argues that Mr. Adamson’s objection to the printing of the t-shirt was not because of the sexual orientation of the members of the GLSO, but because of the Pride Festivals’ advocacy of pride in being homosexual. Acceptance of [HOO’s] argument would allow a public accommodation to refuse service to an individual or group of individuals who hold and/or express pride in their status. This would have the absurd result of including persons with disabilities who openly and proudly display their disabilities in the Special Olympics, persons of race or color, who are not only of differing race and color, but express pride in being so, and persons of differing religions who express pride in their religious beliefs.”
The fairness ordinance, which adopts a Kentucky statute (KRS 344.120) provides in relevant part:
“[I]t is an unlawful practice for a person to deny an individual the full and equal enjoyment of the goods, services, facilities, privileges, advantages, and accommodations of a place of public accommodation, resort, or amusement, as defined in KRS 344.130, on the ground of disability, race, color, religion, or national origin.”
The ordinance also adds that a person violates the ordinance if they deny goods or services or accommodations based on “ages forty and over,” “sexual orientation,” or “gender identity.”
The circuit court reversed the Commission holding that the printer violated the fairness ordinance. It also found that even if the Christian business had violated the ordinance, the ordinance was unconstitutional as applied to the facts of this particular case. After that, the Commission and the president for GLSO filed an appeal in the court of appeals for the Commonwealth of Kentucky.
The appellate court issued an opinion on Friday, affirming the lower court’s finding that HOO did not violate the ordinance. The court declined to issue an opinion “whether an alternative constitutional basis supported the circuit court’s judgment” on the basis that it was “unwarranted.” Appellate courts do not issue opinions on matters that are not before it or do not have to be reached.
The Kentucky appellate court opined that it disagreed with the Commission’s finding that “Acceptance of [HOO’s] argument [for why it did not print the GLSO’s t-shirts] would allow a public accommodation to refuse service to an individual or group of individuals who hold and/or express pride in their status.” The Court found that there was nothing in the record that demonstrated that “HOO, through Adamson, refused any individual the full and equal enjoyment of the goods, services, facilities, privileges, advantages, and accommodations it offered to everyone else because the individual in question had a specific sexual orientation or gender identity.”
Moreover, the appellate court held, there was also no evidence that Adamson refused “because the individual in question was engaging in an activity or conduct exclusively or predominantly by a protected class of people.” The GLSO has no sexual orientation, the court opined. “The GLSO’s desire to sell these shirts to everyone clearly imparted a message: Some people are gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered; and people of their sexual orientations have as much claim to unqualified social acceptance as heterosexuals.” The president of the organization, Mr. Baker, is a non-transgendered man in a married, heterosexual relationship.
In short the court opined, HOO’s business is to promote messages. The conduct HOO chose not to promote was pure speech.
Chief Judge Joy A. Kramer wrote the opinion which concluded in part:
Nothing in the fairness ordinance prohibits HOO, a private business, from engaging in viewpoint or message censorship. Thus, although the menu of services HOO provides to the public is accordingly limited, and censors certain points of view, it is the same limited menu HOO offers to every customer and is not, therefore, prohibited by the fairness ordinance.
Americans United for Separation of Church and State filed a friend of the court brief in the state appellate court.