Kentucky, Colorado Cases Test Limits Of Anti-Discrimination Laws

Feb 13, 2018

With the Kentucky Supreme Court set to weigh in on the discrimination case against Lexington t-shirt maker Hands On Originals, gay rights advocates are preparing a ruling that could force communities to rethink how fairness ordinances are interpreted.

The Hands On case mirrors one before the U.S. Supreme Court, involving a baker who declined to make a cake for the wedding of a gay couple in Colorado. Back in Kentucky, the state high court must decide whether Hands On violated Lexington’s anti-discrimination ordinance by refusing to print a shirt for an annual gay pride festival. In both cases, religious objections were cited as the reason for the refusal.

Monday, Gov. Matt Bevin’s general counsel filed a friend-of-the court brief in favor of Hands On, arguing the Commonwealth of Kentucky has "protected its citizens’ right to act according to their conscience."

"I think they certainly have every right in the world to have an expectation of their First Amendment rights being supported, and I think that's the case they're making," Bevin told WUKY Tuesday. "What we've seen historically is that our courts are good at balancing people's First Amendment rights and providing equal protection under the law."

But Fairness Campaign Director Chris Hartman stresses that even a ruling backing the t-shirt maker would not undermine the core of local fairness ordinances.

"I think a lot of folks think that that means that fairness ordinances that protect LGBTQ people from discrimination will be null and void," Hartman says. "That is absolutely not the case. The question sort of becomes about these ordinances and laws are applied."

Instead, Hartman says it may alter how those protections are viewed, leaving room for business owners to decline to sell products with messages they find objectionable, while continuing to require that they serve customers regardless of their sexual orientation.

"It may clarify things for a lot of folks who maybe had a different interpretation of exactly far these laws went," he says.