Christian Photographer Has a Right to Create Art Consistent with Her Faith

March 10, 2023
Marriage | First Liberty Institute

by Ethan Tong & Jorge Gomez • 5 min read

First Liberty recently filed a friend-of-the-court (amicus) brief in federal appeals court on behalf of our clients Aaron and Melissa Klein. They are supporting Chelsey Nelson, a Christian photographer who is currently fighting a case like theirs. She is challenging a city law that required her to create photographs and write blogs expressing a view of marriage that violates her religious convictions.

Chelsey is based in Louisville, Kentucky and specializes in wedding photography. Like millions of Americans, Chelsey’s faith teaches that marriage is the union between one man and one woman, and she only photographs wedding ceremonies consistent with her religious beliefs. Under a city ordinance, however, she is being required to use her artistic talents to promote same-sex weddings that are against her faith. The law even bars Chelsey from explaining on her website the religious reasons for her choosing to photograph marriages that are one man and one woman.

At first, Chelsey appealed the Louisville law and won at the federal district court, which ruled that she is free to use her creative talents to speak messages that align with her religious beliefs. But the state government appealed that decision, and the case is now pending at the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit Court.

Similar to Chelsey, the state of Oregon punished the Kleins. Why? Because while operating their family bakery, SweetCakes by Melissa in manner consistent with their religious convictions, they declined to create a custom cake for a same-sex wedding. Aaron and Melissa’s case is pending right now at the U.S. Supreme Court.

Our brief points out that a government could not compel a parade to accept an unwanted float, and it also could not compel a float to participate in the parade. In the same way, we argue that “the government cannot compel a wedding party to accept a particular artist’s work or compel the artist to participate in the wedding.” Our attorneys explain:

“Coercing speech from small business owners will not lead to the utopian marketplace…Instead, it will destroy the lives of creative artists and reduce the quality of markets for everyone. Aaron and Melissa Klein know this all too well, for they have experienced the personal and professional devastation that results when the government forces family business owners to choose between their faith and their livelihood.”

We also remind the Sixth Circuit that government compelled speech runs afoul of the values and principles of the Constitution. Our brief concludes:

“A world where local governments can require artists, entertainers, writers, and producers to use their expressive gifts to communicate messages that violate their convictions is a world where the First Amendment has been rendered meaningless.”

Our SweetCakes by Melissa case—as well as Chelsey’s—are both vital cases for religious freedom. These everyday American heroes aren’t just fighting for their rights. They are in the midst of an intense legal battle that could impact the rights and freedoms of millions of people of faith to live, work and create according to their religious beliefs.

Please be in prayer for Aaron and Melissa as they wait for a response from the Supreme Court. The last time the Court heard a case about a Christian cake baker––Jack Phillips’s case, Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado––it ruled in his favor. It was a victory for religious freedom, but it was a narrow one. The justices didn’t address the main free speech and religious liberty questions, namely, whether a baker (and similar creative professionals or artists) had a First Amendment right to decline engaging in expression that offended his or her beliefs.

Our SweetCakes case presents the Supreme Court with a vital question: Can the government compel Americans to create a message that conflicts with their deepest convictions? That key constitutional question was never considered by the Court in the Masterpiece case.

SweetCakes could be the case that takes the cake. A favorable ruling could bring relief to countless Americans in the marketplace who face hostile treatment and the real threat of losing their business or their livelihood because of their beliefs.

Klein Fighting for What Matters | First Liberty Institute

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