The Kentucky Supreme Court ruled Thursday in favor of a Christian print shop owner hit with a discrimination complaint, handing a victory to religious-freedom advocates fighting legal challenges that pit free-speech rights against anti-bias laws.
The court ruled unanimously that the Gay and Lesbian Services Organization lacked standing under the local ordinance to bring a claim against Blaine Adamson, owner of Hands On Originals, after he refused in February 2012 to print shirts for the Lexington Pride Festival, citing his religious beliefs.
The GLSO, a sponsor of the festival, filed a complaint with the Lexington-Fayette Urban County Human Rights Commission, which found that the printshop had violated the public-accommodation ordinance prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity.
In its opinion, however, the court dismissed the matter, affirming an earlier decision of the Fayette Circuit Court.
“[I]n this case, because an ‘individual’ did not file the claim, but rather an organization did, we would have to determine whether the organization is a member of the protected class, which we find impossible to ascertain,” said the 11-page ruling.
In a concurring opinion, Justice David Buckingham said that Hands On Originals had declined 13 previous print requests deemed inappropriate or offensive, including orders from adult-entertainment shops, and that the printer did accept an order for a lesbian singer who performed at the festival.
“Third, at no time did Hands On inquire or know the sexual orientation or gender identity of the persons with whom it dealt on behalf of GLSO,” said Justice Buckingham. “These facts indicate that Hands On was in good faith objecting to the message it was being asked to disseminate.”
Alliance Defending Freedom senior counsel Jim Campbell said that for seven years, government officials used the 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.”
“The First Amendment protects Blaine’s right to continue serving all people while declining to print messages that violate his faith,” said Mr. Campbell in a statement. “Justice David Buckingham recognized this in his concurring opinion, and no member of the court disagreed with that.”
Mr. Adamson has said that he referred the GLSO to another printer who charged the same prices.
The court cited the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2018 decision in favor of a Christian baker in Masterpiece Cakeshop v. the Colorado Civil Rights Commission, but added that the decision fell short of ruling on the discrimination issue.
“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,” said the opinion.
Commission executive director Raymond A. Sexton said he was reviewing the Hands On Originals decision with the panel’s attorney.
“Any decision regarding our next steps (if any) will have to be made by the full Commission,” he said in a statement.