In a win for religious and artistic freedom, the Arizona Supreme Court ruled in favor of two Christian artists who refused to create custom invitations for a same-sex wedding.
The state’s constitution, as well as its Free Exercise of Religion Act, provide protection for owners of a Phoenix art studio, the court ruled Monday, as it banned the city from forcing the artists to make the invitations which violated their core beliefs.
Brush & Nib owners Joanna Duka and Breanna Koski were represented by Alliance Defending Freedom, a non-profit legal organization which challenged the Phoenix non-discrimination law, the Human Relations Ordinance, for coercion of religious believers by violating “the fundamental principle that ‘an individual has autonomy over his or her speech and thus may not be forced to speak a message he or she does not wish to say.'”
The women lost a case at trial level in 2016 which accused them of violating the local ordinance that protects homosexuals from discrimination while preventing the business owners from publicly explaining their convictions or even defending their decision lest they face jail time for that as well.
ADF Senior Counsel Jonathan Scruggs noted that the government “shouldn’t threaten artists with jail time and fines to force them to create custom artwork, such as wedding invitations, expressing messages that violate their beliefs, and that’s what the court has affirmed today.”
“Joanna and Breanna work with all people; they just don’t promote all messages. They, like all creative professionals, should be free to create art consistent with their convictions without the threat of government punishment,” Scruggs. who argued on behalf of the artists and business owners before the Arizona Supreme Court, said Monday.
“Instead, government must protect the freedom of artists to choose which messages to express through their own creations. The court was right to find that protections for free speech and religion protect the freedom of creative professionals to choose for themselves what messages to express through their custom artwork,” he said.
“Phoenix interprets its ordinance, City Code Section 18-4(B), in a manner that forces artists, like Duka and Koski, to use their artistic talents to celebrate and promote same-sex marriage in violation of their beliefs, even when they decide what art they create based on the art’s message, not the requester’s personal characteristics,” ADF explained.
Duka expressed her gratitude that the city’s “overreach” had been stopped by the higher court’s ruling. saving them from threats of “up to six months of jail time, $2,500 in fines, and three years of probation for each day the city would find them in violation of the law,” according to ADF.
“Breanna and I will gladly serve everyone, but we cannot create custom artwork celebrating certain events. And the government should not control those expressive decisions,” she said at a press conference following the Court’s ruling. “But Phoenix sought to do just that. It threatened us with criminal prosecution, jail time, and fines if we
simply decided to politely decline requests to create custom wedding invitations expressing messages that
violate our deepest convictions.”
In its decision, the Arizona Supreme Court wrote about the protection of public freedom of speech and expression.
“The rights of free speech and free exercise, so precious to this nation since its founding, are not limited to soft murmurings behind the doors of a person’s home or church, or private conversations with like-minded friends and family,” the court wrote.
“These guarantees protect the right of every American to express their beliefs in public. This includes the right to create and sell words, paintings, and art that express a person’s sincere religious beliefs,” the decision continued. “With these fundamental principles in mind, today we hold that the city of Phoenix…cannot apply its Human Relations Ordinance…to force Joanna Duka and Breanna Koski…to create custom wedding invitations celebrating same-sex wedding ceremonies in violation of their sincerely held religious beliefs.”
The court’s majority also addressed the sexual discrimination argument raised by the minority.
“This mischaracterization reflects neither plaintiffs’ position nor our holdings,” they stated. “Plaintiffs must, and they do, serve all customers regardless of their sexual orientation. However, by focusing solely on the anti-discrimination purpose of the ordinance, the dissent engages in a one-sided analysis that effectively deprives plaintiffs of their fundamental right to express their beliefs.”
The majority also noted that the view of marriage as a “gender-differentiated union of man and woman,” is held “in good faith by reasonable and sincere people. … Many who deem same-sex marriage to be wrong reach that conclusion based on decent and honorable religious or philosophical premises, and neither they nor their beliefs are disparaged here.”
Lawyers for the artists argued that the case was “not about whether businesses can decline to serve an entire class of people. It is about whether artists can freely choose which messages their own art conveys.”
Koski shared that the court’s decision was one about freedom and is one “that everyone should celebrate, even if they disagree with the beliefs Joanna and I share about marriage.”
“Some may not like our personal values or the artistic decisions we make. But that’s not what today’s decision is about. It’s about who should decide what artists say through their artwork—artists or the government,” Koski said at the press conference.
“For those who favor freedom, that answer is easy. Thankfully, the Arizona Supreme Court sided with freedom,” she added. “That’s a win for everyone.”
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