Kentucky Printer Wins Fight To Refuse To Print Pro-LGBT Shirts

But the technical nature of the decision might not stop future lawsuits.


A Kentucky printer has won a fight over whether it can be forced to print t-shirts for a local LGBT group. It won on a technicality that doesn't address the underlying conflict, so more lawsuits over the issue may be on their way. But one judge on the court made it clear that such suits are not likely to succeed.

The case goes back to 2012, when a Lexington-based print shop named Hands On Originals declined to print t-shirts for the Gay and Lesbian Services Organization (GLSO), for an upcoming pride festival. The owners of Hands On say they will not print messages for customers that go against their religious beliefs, and their website highlights their Christianity as part of their marketing.

The group got its t-shirts elsewhere, but it also filed a complaint with the Lexington-Urban County Human Rights Commission arguing that Hands On discriminated against it because of its members sexual orientation. Hands On responded that it wasn't discriminating against gay customers but was simply refusing to print messages it found objectionable.

The Lexington-Urban County Human Rights Commission initially ruled against Hands On. But the shop fought back, and beginning in 2015 the court rulings started going in their direction. Precedents (all the way up to the U.S. Supreme Court) have made it clear that under the First Amendment, businesses cannot be compelled to print messages they find objectionable. This is not the same as discriminating against a costumer who falls under a protected class: Hands On would have turned away heterosexual customers who wanted them to print gay pride shirts too. It wasn't the customer's identity that mattered—it was the message.

The case made its way to the Kentucky Supreme Court. Yesterday the court ruled in Hands On Originals' favor, but—awkwardly—not for First Amendment reasons. The local ordinance that GLSO turned to here requires that individuals, not organizations, make claims of discrimination. GLSO thus did not have standing to file the complaint at all, and so the court essentially threw the whole thing out with a unanimous vote in favor of the printer.

While this means that the state Supreme Court did not rule on whether Hands On can be forced to print messages it objects to, Justice David C. Buckingham also wrote separately that he believes that the local Human Rights Commission went "went beyond its charge of preventing discrimination in public accommodation and instead attempted to compel Hands On to engage in expression with which it disagreed." His lengthy concurrence documents the many U.S. Supreme Court precedents that make it clear that with few exceptions, printers such as Hands On cannot be forced to print messages they object to.

Buckingham's concurrence doesn't preclude the possibility of future challenges against printers (or bakers, or any other goods or service provider) for declining to print pro-gay messages, but his writings should be a big warning sign to anybody in Kentucky not to confuse a refusal to print a particular message with discrimination against people.