Artists prevail in lawsuit over Phoenix's discrimination ban

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PHOENIX — The Arizona Supreme Court says the free speech rights of two Christian artists who make wedding invitations were violated by Phoenix's anti-discrimination ordinance that makes it illegal for businesses to refuse service to same-sex couples for religion reasons.

The 4-3 decision on Monday reverses lower-court rulings that were favorable to the city.

The Supreme Court says its ruling is limited to only the creation of custom wedding invitations by Joanna Duka and Breanna Koski and isn't a blanket exemption from the ordinance for all their business operations.

The artists believe a marriage should be between only a man and woman.

The court says the city can't force the two artists to make same-sex wedding invitations in violation of the religious beliefs by telling them what they can and can't say.

"The rights of free speech and free exercise, so precious to this nation since its founding, are not limited to soft murmurings behind the doors of a person’s home or church, or private conversations with like–minded friends and family,” the majority opinion reads. “These guarantees protect the right of every American to express their beliefs in public. This includes the right to create and sell words, paintings, and art that express a person’s sincere religious
beliefs.

“With these fundamental principles in mind, today we hold that the City of Phoenix (the “City”) cannot apply its Human Relations Ordinance (the “Ordinance”) to force Joanna Duka and Breanna Koski, owners of Brush & Nib Studios, LC (“Brush & Nib”), to create custom wedding invitations celebrating same-sex wedding ceremonies in violationof their sincerely held religious beliefs."

The case began in May 2016, after Brush & Nib and its owners claimed that a Phoenix anti-discrimination law violated their artistic and religious freedom. They filed a lawsuit in Maricopa County Superior Court.

Koski, an artist, and calligrapher Joanna Duka founded Brush & Nib Studio in 2015. The company specializes in hand-painting and hand-lettering for weddings, special events, and home decor. They also sell ready-made products such as signs and thank-you cards.

The business owners said that Phoenix City Code 18-4(B)(1)-(3) prevented them from exercising artistic and religious freedom by requiring that they create wedding invitations for same-sex couples.

Adopted in 2013, the ordinance prohibits discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, national origin, marital status, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, or disability. It applies to businesses offering services to the general public.


Jonathan Scruggs argued the case for the Scottsdale-based Alliance Defending Freedom’s legal team, presenting a persuading case. An appeal of the case is expected.

“Today freedom won,” Scruggs said. “A government that can crush Joanna and Breanna can crush us all.” Scruggs said they're watching similar cases in other parts of the country, and hoping the issue will eventually make its way to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Jenny Pizer, law and policy director for the LGBT-rights group Lambda Legal, which filed a friend-of-the-court brief supporting the city's position, said that the ruling was troubling.


"The court misguidedly has concluded that free speech protections allow businesses to express anti-gay religious views by denying particular custom-design services to customers because of who they are," Pizer said.


The majority ruling said the city and dissenting justices claimed that if the court were to dare to let the artists express their beliefs, "we, in essence, run the risk of resurrecting the Jim Crow laws of the Old South."


The Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention was among several who filed an Amicus Brief in support of the artists.


Others who joined in the filing were the Jewish Coalition for Religious Liberty, the Arizona Catholic Conference, the Association for Biblical Higher Education, the Association of Christian Schools International, the Northwest Christian School, Christ’s Community Church of El Mirage, Compassionate Counselors, Inc., and the Calvary Chapel Farmington.

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