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Press Release

Department of Justice Files Statement of Interest Defending Photographer on Free Speech Claim

For Immediate Release
Office of Public Affairs

The Department of Justice today filed a Statement of Interest in federal court in Kentucky, explaining that a Louisville/Jefferson County Metro Government law, which requires a photographer to photograph same-sex weddings in violation of her religious objections, violates the U.S. Constitution.  The United States’ brief explains that the photographer, Chelsey Nelson, is likely to succeed on her claim that requiring her to photograph weddings against her conscience constitutes government-compelled speech that violates the Free Speech Clause of the First Amendment.

“The First Amendment forbids the government from forcing someone to speak in a manner that violates individual conscience,” said Eric Dreiband, Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Rights Division. “The U.S. Department of Justice will continue to protect the right of all persons to exercise their constitutional right to speech and expression.”

The law at issue prohibits businesses from discriminating on various bases, including on sexual orientation.  Ms. Nelson brought suit against the Louisville/Jefferson County Metro Government and several of its officials, and sought a preliminary injunction preventing the application of this law to require her to photograph same-sex weddings. 

The United States’ brief explains that Ms. Nelson is likely to succeed on her Free Speech claim.  The Free Speech Clause prohibits the government from requiring people to engage in speech supporting or promoting someone else’s expressive event, such as a wedding ceremony.  The brief observes that “[w]eddings are sacred rites in the religious realm and profoundly symbolic ceremonies in the secular one” and thus are plainly “expressive activities” under the Supreme Court’s Free Speech cases.  Moreover, the brief explains, photography is an expressive art form, and wedding photography in particular seeks to celebrate and honor the union being photographed.  Forcing a photographer, against her conscience, to express her support for a wedding that her faith opposes violates the Constitution.

In July 2018, the Department of Justice announced the formation of the Religious Liberty Task Force.  The Task Force brings together Department components to coordinate their work on religious liberty litigation and policy, and to implement the Attorney General’s 2017 Religious Liberty Guidance.

Updated February 27, 2020

Civil Rights
Press Release Number: 20-239