An administrative law judge has ruled that a Kentucky printer’s refusal to print gay pride T-shirts “constitutes unlawful discrimination,” and, by extension, that printers cannot refuse to print materials promoting ideas they disagree with.
Hands On Originals is a business that prints custom designs on clothes, accessories and other items like mugs and bottles. According to the ruling, Blaine Adamson, its managing owner, “instructed his sales representatives to decline to design, print, or produce orders whenever the requested material was perceived to promote an event or organization that conveys messages that are considered by the sales representative or Mr. Adamson to be inappropriate or inconsistent with Christian beliefs.”
Don Lowe, board member of the Gay and Lesbian Services Organization, contacted three different printing companies in February 2012 about t-shirts for an upcoming gay pride festival, including Hands On Originals. A HOO sales representative approved the design without consulting Adamson, and Adamson didn’t see the design until weeks later, when Lowe called Adamson asking how to pay the deposit and attempting to negotiate a lower price.
During their conversation, Lowe told Adamson that the GLSO was sponsoring the Lexington Pride Festival, “the region’s up and coming premiere festival for the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and questioning community and its allies,” according to their website. At this point Adamson said his company would not be willing to print material “for an event that encouraged people to be proud of their same-sex behavior,” in the words of the ruling, but offered to give Lowe the name of another company that would do the same work for the same price. Lowe declined, and within a month a complaint was filed with Lexington’s Human Rights Commission.
In November 2012 the Commission found that HOO violated the local “Fairness Ordinance,” which “prohibits a public accommodation from discriminating against individuals based upon their sexual orientation or gender identity.” Adamson disagreed, arguing that his refusal was not motivated by Lowe’s sexual identity, but by Adamson’s own religious beliefs. “[Hands On Originals] and its owners did not want to convey the ideological message that people should take pride in engaging in sexual relationships or sexual activity outside of a marriage between one man and one woman,” as the ruling explained. Adamson does, however, regularly do business with and employ homosexual people.
Adamson’s lawyers also argued out that the GLSO, who filed the complaint, “does not have standing to bring a complaint of discrimination before the Lexington-Fayette County Human Rights Commission” because only individuals may do so. Luckily for the GLSO, nonprofits are people too, because of a Kentucky statute that defines “person” as “one or more individuals, labor organizations, joint apprenticeship committees, partnerships, associations, corporations,” and so on.
The judge, R. Greg Munson, said that he is “fully convinced” that Adamson’s religious beliefs are sincerely held, but that “this, however, does not end the inquiry.”
“The ordinance effectively places discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity on par with the effects of discrimination based upon race, color, religion, national origin, sex, disability, and age,” he explained. “An analysis of the Fairness Ordinance does not support a finding that the ordinance ‘substantially burdens’ [HOO’s] freedom of religion.” He also explained that “the Commission has presented clear and compelling evidence that the Fairness Ordinance addresses a compelling interest of Lexington-Fayette County government in safeguarding specified classes of individuals from the humiliation and other deleterious subjective and objective effects of being denied equal access to public accommodation.”
Adamson’s team also tried to defend his decision on First Amendment grounds, arguing that being forced to print the t-shirts would violate his freedom of speech, forcing him to convey a message he did not want to convey. They pointed out that Adamson did not deny Lowe service until he knew what the t-shirt design was, arguing that because the refusal was based on the design and not the customer or his group it did not constitute discrimination.
When asked what about the t-shirt design he objected to, Adamson said “specifically, it’s the Lexington Pride Festival, the name, and that it’s advocating pride in being gay, in being homosexual, and I can’t promote that message.”
Munson didn’t buy it, saying that acceptance of their 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. … The Hearing Commissioner [Munson] agrees with the Commission’s contention that [HOO’s] objection to the printing of the t-shirts was inextricably intertwined with the status of the sexual orientation of members of the GLSO.”
As GLSO President Aaron Baker himself admitted during the hearing, “I believe that a gay printer would have to print a T-shirt for the Westboro Baptist Church… And if the Westboro Baptist Church were to say, ‘Look, we’re a church; we’re promoting our church values by having our name on a T-shirt,’ I don’t see how you could refuse that.”
“No one wants to live in that kind of America — a place where people who identify as homosexual are forced to promote the Westboro Baptists and where printers with sincere religious convictions are forced to promote the message of the GLSO,” said Bryan Beauman, one of HOO’s lawyers. “In America, we don’t force people to express messages that are contrary to their convictions.”
Not only did the judge rule that Adamson’s actions constituted unlawful discrimination in violation of the Fairness Ordinance, he also ordered him “to participate in diversity training to be conducted by the Lexington-Fayette Urban County Human Rights Commission within twelve months of the issuance of this order.”
According to Alliance Defending Freedom, a legal group helping defend Adamson, the Commission can either accept or modify Munson’s recommended ruling. ADF senior counsel Jim Campbell told the Daily Caller that “Hands On Originals has 10 days to file its objections to the recommended decision with the Commission. Once that happens, it is unclear how long it will take the Commissioners to decide whether to adopt or modify the recommended decision.”
The Lexington-Fayette Human Rights Commission “is an independent chartered agency of the Lexington-Fayette Urban County Government” whose statutory functions are to “promote and secure mutual understanding and respect among all ethnic groups in Lexington-Fayette County and act as conciliator in controversies involving inter-group and inter-racial relations; cooperate with Federal, State and other local agencies in the efforts to develop harmonious inter-group and inter-racial relations and…endeavor to enlist support of civic, religious, laborer, and commercial groups and leaders dedicated to the improvement of human relations and the elimination of discriminatory practices; and receive complaints, conduct investigations, hold hearings and make studies as will able the Commission to carry out the purposes of the Kentucky Civil Rights Act.”