Mark Silk on Arizona Supreme Court Ruling Giving Christian Artists a Lot Less Than They Asked for

FILE – This Jan. 22, 2019 file photo shows Christian artists Joanna Duka, front left, and Breanna Koski, front right, outside the Arizona Supreme Court after justices heard arguments over Phoenix’s anti-discrimination ordinance that bars businesses from refusing service to same-sex couples for religion reasons. Duka and Koski, who operate a business that makes invitations and other wedding-related items, had challenged the constitutionality of the ordinance. On Monday, Sept. 16, 2019 the state Supreme Court said the free speech rights of Duka and Koski were violated by the ordinance. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin,File)

Mark Silk is Professor of Religion in Public Life at Trinity College and director of the college’s Leonard E. Greenberg Center for the Study of Religion in Public Life. He is a Contributing Editor of the Religion News Service.

Another skirmish in the national war over religious liberty ended last week, when the Arizona Supreme Court awarded two Christian commercial artists a partial exemption from Phoenix’s anti-discrimination ordinance.

In an opinion column published by Religion News Service on Saturday (Sept. 21), the two artists, Joanna Duka and Breanna Koski, claim that the ruling means that the city “cannot compel us to imagine and create custom artwork that violates our beliefs.”

Actually, that’s not the case.

What the court ruled, in a narrow 4-3 decision, was that Duka and Koski cannot be compelled to make wedding invitations with words or symbols that, in the court’s view, signify their approval of (in this case) same-sex marriage. Which is to say, they don’t have to make invitations if these include the names of the couple and request the honor of the recipient’s presence, with maybe a rainbow flag on the side.

That’s a far cry from the wide-ranging exemption that the Alliance Defending Freedom, the legal advocacy outfit that represented them, was asking for.

The court made a point of not providing Duka and Koski’s business, Bush & Nib Studio, with “a blanket exemption” from an ordinance that bars discrimination because of, among other things, “sexual orientation” and “gender identity or expression.” And it declined to provide an exemption for “other wedding products,” such as custom-designed save-the-date notices, menus, table numbers, and welcome signs.

Its limited exemption was based on the idea that the words and/or symbols on an invitation would violate the Arizona constitution’s equivalent of the First Amendment’s ban on “compelled speech.” But if a same-sex couple asks them to design any of those other wedding products, Duka and Koski will be compelled to “imagine and create custom artwork” that violates their belief that marriage is only between a man and a woman.