CAMPBELL: Kentucky Decision On Christian Print Shop Shows Why Supreme Court Should Rule On Religious Business Owners

Jim Campbell Alliance Defending Freedom
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Add this ruling to the list of reasons why the Supreme Court should decide a much-debated First Amendment question. The ruling is the Kentucky Supreme Court’s decision in Lexington-Fayette Urban County Human Rights Commission v. Hands On Originals, and the First Amendment question is whether governments can force printers and artists who serve all people to create custom items that express messages or celebrate events they consider objectionable.

The Hands On Originals case involves a promotional printer named Blaine Adamson who works with everyone but declines to print messages that conflict with his religious beliefs. Over the years, those beliefs have caused him to decline messages promoting strip clubs and expressing violence, along with many others. None of this was ever a problem — that is, until he declined a request to create shirts with a message promoting a gay pride festival in 2012. That’s when his legal case started.

Some people get this case wrong from the beginning. They assume that Hands On Originals objects to working with LGBT customers. But nothing could be further from the truth. Blaine works with everyone, including members of the LGBT community. In fact, he has printed materials for a lesbian musician who performed at the very pride festival at issue in his case.

The issue for Blaine is whether the message on the shirt he’s asked to print violates his faith. It depends on the shirt’s message — not the customer’s identity.

The case against Blaine has finally come to an end. The Kentucky Supreme Court said that the festival sponsor didn’t have a legal right to sue him. The local law that the group relied on only allows lawsuits by individuals. Groups don’t have the right to bring claims.

This ruling is correct but sidesteps the core First Amendment issues in the case. Justice David Buckington — one of the justices on Kentucky’s high court — did speak to those issues. After considering the facts, Buckingham said that “Hands On was in good faith objecting to the message it was being asked to disseminate” — it was not discriminating against people. Forcing Blaine to create shirts with messages he finds objectionable violates his First Amendment freedom of speech, and Justice Buckingham, quoting the U.S. Supreme Court, emphasized that “[w]hen speech is compelled, . . . individuals are coerced into betraying their convictions” in a way that “is always demeaning.”

When courts decline to rule on these important First Amendment questions, they leave creative professionals in a pickle. Those folks are unsure whether the government has the power to force them to create expressive materials, but many government officials demand just that. So creative professionals must decide whether to risk legal punishment in order to adhere to their conscience or to give up the work they love to do. There is no telling how many people will quietly forfeit their professions while they await critical guidance.

In the meantime, some courts are addressing these First Amendment questions, and over the last three months, two have affirmed the freedom of creative professionals. In August, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 8th Circuit announced that the state of Minnesota cannot force filmmakers to create films celebrating same-sex marriage just because they create films celebrating opposite-sex marriage. And in September, the Arizona Supreme Court established that the city of Phoenix cannot compel an art studio to design and hand-paint custom wedding invitations with messages that violate their beliefs.

While it’s great that these decisions protect creative professionals in Arizona, Minnesota, and the other states within the 8th Circuit, countless others are left in limbo because of the actions of government officials. Only the U.S. Supreme Court can provide the clear guidance that so many creative professionals need by once again affirming the freedom of speakers to control what they say.

Barronelle Stutzman’s case gives the Supreme Court a great chance to do just that. Barronelle is a floral designer in Washington state and the owner of Arlene’s Flowers. After serving a gay customer for nearly 10 years, during which she designed dozens of arrangements for him and his partner, Barronelle declined to create the arrangements celebrating his same-sex wedding or to participate in that ceremony. For that, she finds herself embroiled in a lawsuit that threatens to take away everything she owns.

In September, Barronelle asked the U.S. Supreme Court to hear her case and decide whether governments may force creative professionals who serve everyone to create art expressing a message or celebrating an event that violates their faith. The Kentucky Supreme Court just missed the chance to address a similar question in Hands On Originals.

That decision gives one more reason for the U.S. Supreme Court to review Barronelle’s case. Real people need guidance. They are waiting to hear from the high court.

Jim Campbell is senior counsel with Alliance Defending Freedom (@AllianceDefends). He represents Hands On Originals and Arlene’s Flowers, and argued before the Kentucky Supreme Court in the Hands On Originals case.

The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of The Daily Caller.