Arizona Supreme Court Upholds Religious Liberty of Calligraphers

September 19, 2019

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


Leo Thuman is a columnist for TheNationalPulse.com, primarily focusing on religious liberty issues.

Archive: Leo Thuman

6 comments on “Arizona Supreme Court Upholds Religious Liberty of Calligraphers”

  • fred says:

    Note that the case was first filed in May 2016 before they had any customers, and no one ever filed a discrimination complaint against them. The business is a front for the ADF in the sense that the ADF tailored the business to make their preemptive challenge and reach this outcome.

    • fred says:

      I believe they need to be reported. Y’all know what to do.
      They use Etsy. Look it up.
      This policy is a part of our Terms of Use. By using Etsy, you’re agreeing to this policy and our Terms of Use.

      On Etsy, you cannot discriminate based upon:

      Race
      Color
      Ethnicity
      National origin
      Religion
      Gender
      Gender identity
      Sexual orientation
      Disability
      Any other characteristic protected under applicable law
      It is your responsibility to know your local laws and any other legal regulations on discrimination that might apply to you.

    • dont says:

      This means the right wing is legislating from the judicial bench. I remember when the ring wing abhored such sorcery and called it undemocratic. This is hypocrisy, for sure. Worse, it is undemocratic hypocrisy on behalf of ruthless bigotry.

  • kaysha says:

    According to Thuman: “For the two calligraphers in Phoenix, as well as many more religious Americans nationwide, this was a welcome message to hear.”

    Well… this religious American is disgusted by the bigoted depravity of this calligraphers. The logic of this ruling means they can also kick blacks out of their business.

    A spokesperson from the city of Phoenix said its anti-discrimination law is still legally valid and remains in effect.
    “The Arizona Supreme Court made a very narrow ruling that one local business has the right to refuse to make custom wedding invitations for same-sex couples’ weddings that are similar to the designer’s previous products. This ruling does not apply to any other business in Phoenix,” the spokesperson said.

    Thuman is up to his usual deceptive spin in making it seem as if the ruling applied to all businesses.

  • flo says:

    “Our constitutions and laws do not entitle a business to discriminate among customers based on its owners’ disapproval of certain groups, even if that disapproval is based on sincerely held religious beliefs,” says one of the dissenting judges.

    Not only does this Christian agree with the judge, but I also am morally repelled by these bigots who shun gay people in a public accommodation.

  • jk105 says:

    Good. Now racists religionists can use the same “religious liberty” excuse to deny service to blacks!

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