By Matt Hadro
When Kentucky t-shirt designer Blaine Adamson declined to print promotional shirts for a gay pride festival, he found himself facing a discrimination ruling from the county’s human rights commission.
But he also found an abundance of support, including some from an unlikely source – the lesbian owners of a screen print shop heard about his story and came to his defense.
“Because if you lose,” Adamson explained the owners’ reasoning to EWTN News, “then they also lose the right to reject messages from churches or other groups that they may not want to print for.”
“So it’s not just a Christian issue when it comes to freedom of speech. It’s everyone’s issue.”
Adamson was part of a panel of Christian business owners who are facing or may face legal consequences for operating their businesses according to their religious beliefs.
The panel spoke Tuesday in Washington D.C., at an Alliance Defending Freedom event, “Conscience and Creative Professionals,” exploring religious freedom cases that are expected to make their way to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Panel members included Adamson, Washington state florist Barronelle Stutzman, and Breanna Koski and Joanna Duka, owners of a Phoenix-based custom art studio who are challenging a city ordinance they say would force them to cater to same-sex weddings against their consciences. Kelvin Cochran, the former fire chief of Atlanta who was fired over a book he personally wrote defending Christian views on sex, also spoke.
The panelists are among an increasing number of small business owners who found themselves facing legal threats and discrimination complaints when they decided they could not cater to same-sex weddings. However, they have argued that they are happy to serve gay and lesbian clients – and many have strong relationships with LGBT clients – but it is specifically same-sex wedding ceremonies or related events that they morally object to participating in.
Barronelle Stutzman was sued by Washington state and the American Civil Liberties Union for declining to make flower arrangements for the same-sex wedding of a long-time customer. After losing at the trial court level, she has appealed her case to the Washington Supreme Court.
At the panel event, Stutzman said she has received “overwhelming” support in the form of letters, cards, and phone calls – even from unexpected sources.
She said one man called her saying he was gay, but offering her $5,000 he had in savings, because he objected to the state’s complaint against her. “‘I know I’ll be ostracized by the gay community,’ he said, ‘but I don’t care,’” Stutzman recalled.
In another instance, she said two lesbian customers of hers pledged to continue shopping with her.
“They said ‘you’ve never, ever treated us poorly. You’ve always respected us and waited on us, and we really appreciate it. We will continue to shop here,’” Stutzman related. “So there is encouragement in that.”
Adamson says he has received local and national support for his stand for religious freedom. The supporters include former employees of his who have come out as gay but praise his business, including one lady who told him that “I would disrespect you more if you would have printed those shirts.”
“Because she had seen over the years that I had rejected messages from all walks of life that I felt like went against my conscience,” Adamson explained.
Eugene Volokh, who teaches religious freedom and free speech law at UCLA School of Law, even wrote in the Washington Post that he agreed with the Kentucky trial court judge, who had ruled that Adamson was protected under both the First Amendment and the state’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act.
Adamson says he has rejected many shirt designs that he found he could not in good conscience print – like offers from strip clubs and a porn rally, designs with violent content, and a fraternity that wanted shirts with Jesus riding a motorcycle.
“It just looked disrespectful,” he said of the last example. “I mean, [Jesus] is the King of Kings. And is my Savior. And it was just something that convicted me that I couldn’t print.”
The panel members also shared their personal stories, including how their faith has been tested as they face litigation and the possible loss of their livelihood.
Cochran said his faith is a “living faith” and he has no choice but to live it in public.
“It is a faith that, when you live it out through faith and obedience, there should be evidence that it is real,” he said.
“My faith does not teach me to discriminate against anyone,” he added. Rather, he said it teaches him to “love everyone without condition” and “recognize the inherent worth and dignity of all peoples.”
Stutzman says she had a good relationship with Rob, her gay customer on behalf of whom the ACLU and the state of Washington filed their complaint.
“Rob has been a favorite customer of mine for over 10 years,” she said. “I love working with Rob.”
After she heard Rob would have a wedding soon with his partner and would want her to serve it, she discussed the matter with her husband. “The thing that our faith teaches us is that marriage is between a man and a woman and it symbolizes Christ and His relationship with the Church,” Stutzman explained.
“So when Rob came in to talk to me about his wedding, I just gently put my hands on Rob’s, and I said ‘I’m sorry Rob. I can’t do your wedding because of my relationship with Jesus Christ.’ And he said he understood.”
They talked for a little while and Stutzman said she recommended three other florists to Rob “who I knew would do him a good job.” Then they hugged and Rob departed.
Shortly after, Rob’s partner posted about the matter on Facebook, saying Stutzman had the right to believe as she did but had hurt their feelings. The post went viral.
For two weeks, the business received death threats, bombing threats, and picketing threats. Stutzman said she reached out to the police and had a security system installed. After that, the state and the ACLU “filed a lawsuit against us personally and corporately,” she noted.
Because of the nature of the suit, “we stand to lose everything we worked for and own,” Stutzman said, as ACLU attorney fees are “over a million dollars now and will probably be over two by the time this is finished.”
Stutzman says she has seen Rob twice since she declined to serve his wedding, but the last time was in court.
When asked what she would say to Rob in person, she responded, “I’d be so excited to see Rob. I would hug him. I would catch up on his life. And I would serve him another 10 years. I miss him.”