Blaine Adamson is the managing owner of Hands On Originals, a promotional printing company in Kentucky. And last week, the Kentucky Court of Appeals ruled that Blaine is free to decline to print messages that conflict with his religious beliefs.
This should be an unremarkable decision.
And in some contexts, such a ruling really would be as unremarkable as it should be. Consider the designers who publicly stated their unwillingness to design clothes for the first lady or Ivanka Trump, believing it would express a message of approval regarding the president’s politics. Consider the cake artist who refused to create a cake with the words, “We do not support gay marriage,” because she disagreed with the message. Or consider the photographer who refused to take Christmas photos for Alliance Defending Freedom founder Alan Sears, because, in her words, “I oppose the goals and objectives of your organization and have no interest in working on its behalf.”
In all these instances, the principled exercise of conscience drew either applause or the equivalent of a not-quite-interested yawn.
The individuals mentioned above may not have been motivated by religious beliefs like Blaine was. Yet they all—like Blaine—declined to create something not because of any trait of the customer, but because of their reluctance to endorse or express a particular message. And they all—like Blaine—made these decisions because they were unwilling to violate their conscience.
In almost all respects, the facts in Blaine’s case are comparable to those situations above. Blaine declined to print expressive shirts promoting the Lexington Pride Festival hosted by the Gay and Lesbian Services Organization. But even though Blaine couldn’t print the shirt, he offered to connect the customer to another printer that would have produced the shirts for the same price Blaine would have charged (a thoughtful gesture the designers, cake artist, and photographer mentioned above did not make).
His decision to decline the order was not motivated by the customer’s sexual orientation. Indeed, Blaine has long done business with and employed people who identify as part of the LGBT community. Blaine simply did not want to print the message on the shirts, a message that conflicts with his faith. The court, in an opinion written by Chief Judge Joy A. Kramer, recognized this simple fact, holding that the requested shirts “clearly imparted a message.”
Moreover, Judge Kramer explained, there was no evidence that Hands On Originals “refused any individual the full and equal enjoyment of the goods, services, facilities, privileges, advantages, and accommodations it offered to everyone else because the individual in question had a specific sexual orientation or gender identity.”
With all those similarities, it should be no wonder that Blaine prevailed. But why are so many other courts failing to reach the same conclusion in similar cases?
With the Kentucky Court of Appeals ruling in Blaine’s case, the Bluegrass State has shined light on a reality that several other courts have been unable (or unwilling) to see: that freedom of conscience must be protected regardless of the popularity of the message that the business owner is unwilling to express.
As Hamlet once quipped, “There’s the rub.” That’s the difference between Blaine and the other individuals above. And that’s the rub that Blaine and others like him have faced. People like Barronelle Stutzman, the floral artist who declined to create artistic expression celebrating a same-sex wedding. Or Elaine Huguenin, the photographer who—instead of declining to photograph the head of a religious nonprofit group—declined to create images telling the story of a same-sex commitment ceremony. (Elaine and her husband were later told by a New Mexico Supreme Court justice that “compromis[ing] the very religious beliefs that inspire their lives” was “the price of citizenship.”)
When business owners exercise their freedom of conscience by taking a popular stand, they are applauded, and society at large celebrates the triumph of free expression and the principled exercise of conscience. But when—like Blaine—business owners seek to exercise their freedom of conscience in a way that is not in line with approved government orthodoxy, they are frequently cast as bigots in need of forced “re-education” or punishment. They are told that they must sacrifice either their livelihood or their conscience.
The freedom to determine what messages you will—and will not—express is a freedom that belongs to every citizen. Championing the freedoms of expression and conscience for those who share your views, while demanding that others violate their convictions, is not tolerant, and it is not principled. It is hypocrisy. Proponents of true tolerance recognize that it’s a two-way street. Making principled decisions isn’t always popular, but we illuminate the best of our diverse society when we make room for diversity in conscience and expression.
The Kentucky Court of Appeals got it right—it treated Blaine no differently than creative professionals who hold contrary views. It recognized that expressive freedom is no less for the conservative than the progressive, for the person of faith than the atheist. Time will tell whether other courts are able (or willing) to prioritize principle and faithfully uphold cherished constitutionally protected freedoms for all.
James Gottry is legal counsel for Alliance Defending Freedom, which represents Blaine Adamson and Hands On Originals.