Arizona artists win lawsuit against same-sex wedding invitations

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PHOENIX – The free speech rights of two Christian artists who make wedding invitations have been violated by an anti-discrimination ordinance in Phoenix that makes it illegal to deny service to same-sex couples on religious grounds, a the Arizona Supreme Court ruled Monday.

Decision 4-3 overturned lower court rulings in favor of the city.

The state Supreme Court said its ruling is limited to the creation of personalized wedding invitations by Joanna Duka and Breanna Koski and does not constitute a blanket exemption from the ordinance for all of their business operations.

The artists, who believe a marriage should only be between a man and a woman, had argued that the ordinance would violate their religious beliefs by forcing them to make bespoke products for same-sex marriage ceremonies.

The High Court said the city could not force them to make invitations to same-sex marriages.

“Duka and Koski’s beliefs about same-sex marriage may seem old-fashioned, even offensive to some,” the court majority wrote. “But the guarantees of free speech and freedom of religion are not just for those who are deemed sufficiently enlightened, advanced or progressive. They are for everyone.”

In the dissenting opinion, the court’s minority said the case was not about the content of personalized wedding products but rather about the identity of customers.

“Today’s decision is also deeply troubling because its reasoning cannot be limited to discrimination related to same-sex marriage or based on beliefs of a religion, but extends more broadly to other claims of a “right” for businesses to refuse services to disadvantaged customers, “the notice reads.

The majority decision said the city and dissenting justices said if the court dares to let artists express their beliefs, “we run, in essence, the risk of resuscitating the Jim Crow laws of the Old South.”

City lawyers are reviewing potential grounds for appeal.

Mayor Kate Gallego, a Democrat, stressed that the ordinance remains in effect.

“I want to be clear: the city of Phoenix does not and will not tolerate hatred in any form,” Gallego said. “That doesn’t change with today’s decision, and we won’t stop our fight.”

In 2018, the United States Supreme Court sided with a Colorado baker who refused to bake a wedding cake for a same-sex couple, ruling that the state’s Civil Rights Commission had displayed anti-religious bias when she ruled against the baker for refusing to bake the cake.

The Supreme Court ruling, however, did not address the broader question of whether a business can raise religious objections to deny service to gays and lesbians.

An Arizona state law that prohibits discrimination by businesses does not include sexual orientation as a protected class. Phoenix, Tempe, Flagstaff and Tucson have passed orders prohibiting companies from discriminating on this basis.

So far, Phoenix has not taken any enforcement action stemming from the ban.

An attorney representing the Arizona artists described the state’s High Court ruling as a landslide victory, even as judges limited their ruling to personalized wedding invitations.

“Regardless of your perspective on marriage, it is a victory for all the citizens of Arizona because a government that can crush Joanna and Breanna can crush any of us,” Jonathan said. Scruggs, lawyer for Alliance Defending Freedom, a conservative advocacy organization that brought the case.

Scruggs acknowledged that the ruling does not automatically protect other business owners, who should seek their own court order to avoid violating non-discrimination orders in Phoenix or other cities in Arizona.

Jenny Pizer, legal and policy director of LGBTQ rights group Lambda Legal, which filed a friend of the court brief supporting the city’s position, said the decision was troubling.

“The court incorrectly concluded that free speech protections allow companies to express anti-gay religious views by denying particular custom design services to customers because of who they are,” Pizer said.

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