In Arizona, Religious Expression Has Another Day in Court

Let’s address the elephant in the courtroom: the Masterpiece Cakeshop decision was confusing. In analyzing and deciding the case on the fairness of the initial hearing at the Colorado Civil Rights Commission, the Supreme Court ultimately passed on answering the toughest question: In the balancing act between individual religious freedom and the public interest, which side tips the scale? The laboratories of democracy at the state level are now left to address the hard questions of religious expression in a place of public accommodation in a way that SCOTUS chose to avoid.

The Phoenix, Arizona, non-discrimination act was amended in 2013 to outlaw discrimination against gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender inhabitants of the city—and the amendment has faced significant challenges. In May of 2016 the conservative Christian owners of Brush & Nib Calligraphy Studio, Joanna Duka and Breanna Koski, sued the City of Phoenix. They alleged that being compelled to create art, in the form of invitations and other hand-lettered items, for same-sex wedding ceremonies was a violation of their right to free exercise of religion. This recent case in Arizona is now headed to the state Supreme Court in an attempt to answer one central question: Do sincerely held religious beliefs come with a license to discriminate?

In October of 2016 the court ruled that the city code does not violate the calligraphy studio owners’ rights to either free speech or the free exercise of religion. Duka, Koski, and their attorneys, the infamous Alliance Defending Freedom, appealed the decision. In June of this year the appeals court affirmed the earlier decision upholding the city of Phoenix’s non-discrimination ordinance as constitutional. The Arizona Supreme Court is currently reviewing the case, making this argument one of the tests of religious freedom closest to the Supreme Court, and closest to tying up the loose ends of Masterpiece Cakeshop. At the appellate level, the court cited the narrow focus of that decision in its justification for the upholding of the initial decision against Brush & Nib Calligraphy Studio.

This case may well prove to be a turning point in the continued conversation surrounding the balance of the expressive rights of religious business owners and the rights of their potential clients. One hallmark of this case was Duka and Koski’s desire to post a notice on their website and storefront notifying the community that the business refused to serve same-sex couples.  This blatant notice of discrimination and bigotry is reminiscent of the “Whites Only” signs once common (and still present) across the United States. While this notice was found to be in clear violation of the constitutionally viable, citywide anti-discrimination ordinance, this bigotry is something that humanists have a responsibility to condemn.

A person’s religious beliefs do not compel that person to operate a business, and they don’t give that business owner the right to deny service based on a protected characteristic, including but not limited to sexual orientation. It is in the best interest of all people to fight against discrimination and bigotry in all its forms, and humanistic principles of care and compassion for people compel a reaction when that discrimination and bigotry rears its ugly head. Access to public accommodations is a right of all Americans. Business owners of all faiths and none must cooperate with vast legal codes and requirements, and the obligation to treat all people with dignity and respect is not and should not be exempted.