FRANKFORT, Ky. — The Kentucky Supreme Court has dismissed a lawsuit against an expressly Christian screen printing business accused of discrimination for declining to print shirts for a “gay pride” parade. While the court did not rule on the merits of the issue, it rather found that the suing organization lacked standing in the case as no single individual was named as being the offended party.
“Importantly, the record is clear that no individual claimed Hands On had discriminated,” wrote Justice Laurance VanMete. “Because GLSO itself was the only plaintiff to file a claim under Section 2-33 with the Commission and it did not purport to name any individual on whose behalf it was bringing the claim, GLSO lacked the requisite statutory standing.”
“Normally in these cases, courts look to whether the requesting customer, or some end user that will actually use the product, is a member of the protected class,” he explained. “[T]he individual is the one who has filed the lawsuit, so the court can properly determine whether that person has been discriminated against.”
“But in this case, because an ‘individual’ did not file the claim, but rather an organization did, we would have to determine whether the organization is a member of the protected class, which we find impossible to ascertain,” VanMete added. “Without a proper complainant, no determination can be made as to whether the ordinance was violated.”
As previously reported, in 2012, the Gay and Lesbian Services Organization of Lexington (GLSO) approached the Kentucky-based Hand On Originals — a company that clearly identifies as “Christian outfitters” and providers of “Christian apparel” on the homepage of its website — to print t-shirts for the Lexington Gay Pride Festival.
When manager Blaine Adamson declined the order due to the company’s biblical convictions, GLSO filed a complaint with the Lexington-Fayette Urban County Government Human Rights Commission (HRC).
“I want the truth to come out — it’s not that we have a sign on the front door that says, ‘No Gays Allowed,’” Adamson said following the filing of the complaint. “We’ll work with anybody. But if there’s a specific message that conflicts with my convictions, then I can’t promote that.”
HRC examiner Greg Munson ruled in October 2014 that Hands On Originals violated the law by not printing the shirts for the event. The company was then ordered to undergo diversity training so that it would not decline to print such messages in the future.
“The evidence of record shows that the respondent discriminated against GLSO because of its members’ actual or imputed sexual orientation by refusing to print and sell to them the official shirts for the 2012 Lexington Pride Festival,” he wrote.
GSLO representative Aaron Baker admitted to the commission during the hearing that his desire to force Christians to print pro-homosexual messages works both ways, and that homosexual companies could be forced to print — for example — messages for the Westboro Baptist “Church.”
“I believe that a gay printer would have to print a t-shirt for the Westboro Baptist Church,” he stated, referring to the controversial organization whose messages express a desire for Americans to burn in Hell rather than repent and be saved. “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.”
Hands on Originals filed an appeal with the Fayette Circuit Court via its legal counsel, contending that the ruling violated its constitutional right to freedom of religion and freedom of expression.
In April 2015, the court reversed Munson’s ruling, noting that the company regularly does business with homosexuals, and so the decision not to print the shirts was not based on any person’s sexuality, but rather the message that the company would be forced to convey.
The court noted that from 2010-2012 Hands on Originals declined 13 orders from various groups because of the message that was to be printed.
“Those print orders that were refused by HOO included shirts promoting a strip club, pens promoting a sexually explicit video and shirts containing a violence-related message,” it explained. “There is further evidence in the Commission record that it is standard practice within the promotional printing industry to decline to print materials containing messages that the owners do not want to support.”
The HRC appealed the ruling to the Kentucky Court of Appeals, which upheld the circuit court determination in favor of Hands on Originals and Adamson.
It noted that GLSO representative Don Lowe — one of the men who called Hands On Originals but was not a separate plaintiff in the case — never identified himself as a homosexual in placing the order, and the requesting organization wasn’t limited to homosexuals. Therefore, the refusal had nothing to do with discriminating against a specific person, but rather the message that was requested.
“Don Lowe testified he never told Adamson anything regarding his sexual orientation or gender identity. The GLSO itself also has no sexual orientation or gender identity: it is a gender-neutral organization that functions as a support network and advocate for individuals who identify as gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgendered,” the court wrote.
The HRC then appealed again to the Kentucky Supreme Court, which agreed last October to hear the case. But on Thursday, the court could not rule one way or the other on the matter, concluding rather that GLSO had no standing in the case as an offended individual must be named as a complainant, rather than an organization as a whole.
“At no point did any Hands On representative inquire into the GLSO representatives’ sexual orientation, and the GLSO representatives did not disclose such information,” Judge VanMete likewise noted.
He said that while the dismissal of the case “is no doubt disappointing to many interested … [in] its potential outcome, the fact that the wrong party filed the complaint makes the discrimination analysis almost impossible to conduct, including issues related to freedom of expression and religion.”
The religious liberties organization Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), which represented Adamson in court, applauded the dismissal nonetheless, stating that the “decision makes clear that this case never should have happened.”
“For more than seven years, government officials used this case to turn Blaine’s life upside down, even though we told them from the beginning that the lawsuit didn’t comply with the city’s own legal requirements,” Senior Counsel Jim Campbell said in a statement. “The First Amendment protects Blaine’s right to continue serving all people while declining to print messages that violate his faith.”
10 attorneys general and 16 scholars had filed amicus briefs in support of Adamson.