Opinion

When Did Freedom of Conscience Become Remarkable?

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Posted: Aug 23, 2019 1:06 PM
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When Did Freedom of Conscience Become Remarkable?

Source: AP Photo/Jon Elswick

More than two years ago, the Kentucky Court of Appeals issued what should have been an unremarkable ruling in what should have been an unremarkable case.

Of course, if that were so, the Kentucky Supreme Court would not be hearing arguments today in the same case, Lexington-Fayette Urban County Human Rights Commission v. Hands On Originals.

The question before the court is whether the government can force the owner of a promotional print shop to create shirts with messages that violate his faith. The core issue, however, goes much deeper than cotton-poly blends and silk screening. Must Americans surrender their First Amendment rights of expression and belief when they enter the public square?

The answer to both questions should be a resounding “no”. 

Blaine Adamson is the managing owner of Hands On Originals, a promotional printing company in Kentucky. He’s also a Christian. In 2012, a customer asked Blaine to print shirts with a message promoting a gay pride festival. Because of his deeply held beliefs about marriage and sexuality, Blaine could not in good conscience create the shirts. Therefore, Blaine offered to refer the requesting organization — the Gay and Lesbian Services Organization — to another company that would print the shirts for the same price.

That should have been an unremarkable exchange. After all, Blaine has declined many orders due to the message requested, including shirts with violent messages and products promoting sexually explicit materials, as well as a shirt depicting Jesus walking on water next to a pirate ship. In every case, his decision is related to the message requested, not the individual requesting it. But the Lexington-Fayette Urban County Human Rights Commission didn’t see it this way, ruling that “Mr. Adamson’s refusal…was clearly because of the sexual orientation and identity of members of the GLSO.”

They got it wrong. As my former colleagues at Alliance Defending Freedom have noted, Blaine happily serves all customers, including those from the LGBT community. As just one example, Blaine had previously printed materials for a lesbian singer who performed at Lexington’s 2012 Pride Festival.

Thankfully, the courts below have recognized the distinction between messages and individuals. The Kentucky trial court reversed the Commission’s decision and ordered it to dismiss all charges against Hands On Originals. The Kentucky Court of Appeals likewise held that there was no evidence that Blaine and 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.”

Unfortunately, the Commission was undeterred, and now Blaine must make his case again before the Kentucky Supreme Court.

This prompts a series of “why” questions. 

Why is the Commission so determined to cast Blaine Adamson as a bigot? Why, in a similar case in Colorado, did government officials label the religious beliefs of cake artist Jack Phillips a “despicable piece of rhetoric”? In short, why are religious beliefs being labeled as intolerable in a tolerant society. 

A truly tolerant society welcomes diverse beliefs, it doesn’t seek to homogenize them. And a society that values freedom of expression and belief will take great pains to protect it, regardless of whether it falls in line with approved government orthodoxy. 

Kathy Trautvetter and Diane DiGeloromo understand this. These lesbian owners of a print shop in New Jersey immediately sympathized with Blaine and his situation, and publicly voiced their support. DiGeloromo explained, “We feel this really isn't a gay or straight issue, this is a human issue.  No one really should be forced to do something against what they believe in, it's as simple as that.”

Like the Kentucky Court of Appeals, Trautvetter and DiGeloromo recognize the principle that too many have missed (or ignored). Expressive freedom belongs to the conservative and the progressive, for the person of faith and the atheist. 

As I’ve written before, championing freedom of expression and conscience for those who share your views, while demanding that others violate their convictions, is neither tolerant nor principled. True tolerance requires a two-way street. Applying this principle isn’t always popular, but our society is at its best when we allow — and consistently protect— diversity in conscience and expression.

There is much on which we can disagree. But as Americans who value freedom and diversity, we should all agree to prioritize principle and faithfully uphold cherished constitutionally protected freedoms for all.

James Gottry is an attorney and Vice President of Public Policy for the Dr. James Dobson Family Institute.