A Kentucky judge overturned an earlier ruling on the case, arguing it violated the T-shirt company's freedom of religion

By Tierney McAfee
Updated April 28, 2015 04:45 PM
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A Kentucky court has ruled that a Christian T-shirt company has the right to refuse to print gay pride festival shirts.

The decision was based in part on a state statute that has drawn comparison to Indiana’s contentious Religious Freedom Restoration Act, the Washington Post reports. The statute reads, “Government shall not substantially burden a person’s freedom of religion.”

The “person” in this case is Hands on Originals (HOO), a Christian T-shirt company in Lexington, Kentucky, that turned down an order by the Gay and Lesbian Services Organization (GLSO) to print shirts for a 2012 pride festival. The group filed a complaint with the Lexington-Fayette Urban County Human Rights Commission, which ruled in favor of the GLSO in 2014.

But that ruling was struck down on Monday by Judge James D. Ishmael of Fayette Circuit Court, who argued that the company objected to the message to be printed on the shirts, rather than the sexual orientation of the potential customers.

“This Court does not fault the Commission in its interest in insuring citizens have equal access to services but that is not what this case is all about,” Ishmael wrote.

“It is clear beyond dispute that HOO and its owners declined to print the T-shirts in question because of the MESSAGE advocating sexual activity outside of a marriage between one man and one woman,” he added, pointing out that HOO had also refused to print orders for “a strip club, pens promoting a sexually explicit video, and shirts containing a violence related message.”

“The well established Constitutional rights of HOO and its owners on this issue is well settled,” he concluded.

The GLSO is anything but settled, however.

“The GLSO is disappointed at Judge Ishmael’s ruling,” the organization said in a statement on its website. “We feel that this is a reminder that there are still many out there who feel that their citizenship is worth more than that of members of the LGBTQ+ community. This is merely another battle on what has been a long road to full equality for the LGBTQ+ community; which, despite this decision, has been trending toward equality for all.”

The Alliance Defending Freedom, an Arizona-based nonprofit that defended HOO, praised the decision – which came one day before the Supreme Court began hearing arguments in a historic same-sex-marriage case that could change the nation’s definition of marriage.

Government “can’t force citizens to surrender free-speech rights or religious freedom in order to run a small business, and this decision affirms that,” said senior legal counsel Jim Campbell, according to the Washington Post.

But the GLSO may get its day in court – again.

Ray Sexton, the executive director of the Lexington Human Rights Commission, said an appeal was likely, Kentucky.com reports. The commission’s board will discuss next steps at a meeting Monday evening.