by Leo Thuman
This past Monday marked another important victory for religious liberty, this time coming via an Arizona Supreme Court ruling.
The case dealt with many familiar issues: two Christian calligraphers, Joanna Duka and Breanna Koski, operate a company called Brush and Nib LLC which specializes in handmade, custom calligraphy products. The duo felt that a Phoenix municipal ordinance intended to prevent undue discrimination in commerce had the potential to do the opposite: coerce them to produce creative products which send messages contrary to their religious beliefs.
Consequently, in 2016 Duka and Koski sued the city of Phoenix in an Arizona trial court, only for the judge to argue that their trade of handwritten, custom invitations did not constitute an exercise in protected speech. Incredibly, the judge suggested that the only way to endorse same-sex marriage would be to participate in the actual wedding: “Indeed any conceivable endorsement of same-sex marriage that might be conveyed would be conveyed by the act of the marriage itself.” (Tell that to the dozens of progressive groups that were endorsing same-sex marriage before Obergefell!)
Despite the setback, Duka, Koski and their attorneys from Alliance Defending Freedom challenged the lower court’s ruling in an appellate court in 2018. Though it ruled against them again on commerce grounds, the Court of Appeals was considerably more respectful. It affirmed that the two could use their business as a platform for speech, and that this was protected. Yet the controversial argument was again made that Phoenix’s ordinance somehow didn’t pose an undue threat to their religious liberty and freedom of conscience.
This week’s decision was not only a long-sought win for Brush and Nib — it was also a significant victory for religious freedom. In the ruling, the Arizona Supreme Court reversed a large portion of the initial decision and vacated a part of the appellate ruling. In doing so, the majority determined that beyond any doubt the Phoenix ordinance had a capacity to infringe upon the First Amendment rights of business owners and that Duka and Koski had standing before the court.
Even more importantly perhaps, the decision lambasted the tendency of left-leaning jurists and legal scholars to blindly treat laws like Phoenix’s as benign anti-discrimination laws. The majority opinion authored by Justice Andrew Gould stated that 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.
Overall, this decision stands out as a bright spot for religious liberty, something which hasn’t been seen frequently at a state level. Normally, these sorts of cases are resolved by federal courts after many rounds of appeal, much like the similar case regarding a Minnesota videography company a few weeks ago.
Moreover, this case importantly confirmed that commerce cannot be fully separated from conscience and that it is disingenuous to treat it as if it were. The authors of the opinion truly understood, as they wrote, that “the guarantees of free speech and freedom of religion are not only for those who are deemed sufficiently enlightened, advanced, or progressive” but “are for everyone.”
For the two calligraphers in Phoenix, as well as many more religious Americans nationwide, this was a welcome message to hear.
Photo credit: American Life League via Flickr, CC BY-NC 2.0