Two lower courts had ruled in favor of Lexington print shop Hands-On Originals, which declined a T-shirt order from Lexington's Gay and Lesbian Services Organization for the city's 2012 Gay Pride Festival. The design said "Lexington Pride Festival" on the front.
The Kentucky high court ruled that the organization lacked the standing to make a claim against owner Blaine Adamson because they were not the party denied service. Rather, the individual who placed the order should have filed the complaint, since Lexington's gay rights law was written to protect individuals.
"While this result is no doubt disappointing to many interested in this case and 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," Justice Laurance VanMeter wrote in the majority ruling, according to the Lexington Herald-Leader.
Adamson said after a hearing before the Supreme Court in August that the T-shirt he was asked to print "goes against my conscience."
The Gay and Lesbian Services Organization originally filed a complaint with Lexington's Human Rights Commission, arguing Adamson had violated a city ordinance, barring discrimination based on sexual orientation in employment, housing and public accommodations. The commission ruled the company had violated the ordinance and ordered Adamson to print the shirts and attend diversity training,
Adamson appealed the decision -- saying his actions were protected under the First Amendment -- and won rulings from the circuit court and state court of appeals.
In a concurring opinion, Justice David Buckingham wrote that the Lexington Human Rights Commission "had gone beyond its charge of preventing discrimination in public accommodation and instead attempt[ing] to compel Hands On to engage in expression with which it disagreed ... When expression is involved, whether a parade organizer, a newspaper or a t-shirt company, a publisher may discriminate on the basis of content, even if that content relates to a protected classification."
The ruling, which sidesteps civil rights and First Amendment issues, is similar to last year's U.S. Supreme Court ruling siding with a Colorado baker who refused to make a cake for a same-sex wedding. The Colorado Civil Rights Commission had ruled against baker Jack Phillips, but the court said the commission was engaging in anti-religious bias in doing so.
However, that ruling also stopped short of deciding the broader issue of whether or not a business can refuse to serve gay and lesbian people on the basis of a business owner's beliefs.