On Friday afternoon, a Kentucky court found that the owner of a T-shirt printing company was not violating anyone’s rights by declining a job that would have required him to print shirts with a message that violates his religious convictions. This ruling is a surprising victory for orthodox U.S. adherents of the world’s two largest religions, who have been increasingly taken to court, usually by an LGBT couple or group, and prosecuted for “discrimination” when choosing not to accept money to violate their convictions.
Blaine Adamson is the owner of Hands on Originals, a T-shirt printing company based in Lexington, Kentucky. In 2012, the Gay and Lesbian Services Organization (GLSO) asked Adamson to print T-shirts that would promote a local gay-pride festival. Citing his faith and conscience, Adamson declined to print the shirts and referred the group to another company that would likely complete the order for the same price. The other company printed the T-shirts for GLSO free of charge.
Still, GLSO filed a complaint with the Lexington-Fayette Urban County Human Rights Commission. Two years later, the commission ruled Adamson was required to print messages on his T-shirts that conflicted with his religious beliefs.
Alliance Defending Freedom, a nonprofit public interest law firm, picked up Adamson’s case and appealed the order to the Fayette Circuit Court, which reversed the commission’s ruling. The commission appealed to the Court of Appeals in Lexington-Fayette Urban County Human Rights Commission v. Hands On Originals. The Kentucky appeals court ruled in Adamson’s favor Friday, finding he is free to decline business based on his religious beliefs, and citing the state’s Religious Freedom Restoration Statute as protecting his liberties to live in accordance with his beliefs. The decision will likely be appealed.
A Rare Recent Victory For First Amendment Freedoms
Since so many similar cases have seen rulings in the opposite direction, like when this Colorado court deemed a baker had been unlawfully discriminatory in declining to bake a wedding cake for an LGBT couple, this is a victory for free speech and religious liberty advocates and businesses whose owners wish to remain free of government coercion.
In the appeals court opinion, Chief Judge Joy A. Kramer said Adamson wasn’t discriminatory by refusing to print the T-shirts, due to a couple key facts. She found no evidence that would show Hands On Originals had “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.”
In fact, Adamson regularly does business with and employs people who identify as LGBT. This worked in his favor, with the judge immediately ruling out a violation of Kentucky’s discrimination statute that extends special protections to those who fit legally protected categories.
Not only had Adamson previously refused to print messages with which he disagreed, like shirts promoting violence, sexually explicit videos, and strip clubs, but this policy was clearly stated in writing. LGBT business owners also stood up for Adamson’s right to choose the messages he promotes, a rarity in cases like these.
What This Suggests Going Forward
Luke Goodrich, a deputy general counsel at Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, a nonprofit law firm that filed an amicus curiae brief in support of ADF, said in a press release, “It doesn’t matter what the speech is—pro-gay, anti-gay, pro-immigration, anti-immigration—the government can’t force you to print it. That’s the beauty of free speech: It protects everyone.”
In an e-mail, Goodrich told me, “The policy is evidence that HOO is making decisions based on the message of the speech it prints, rather than based on any particular buyer’s status.” This is likely how judges view the distinction between a case like this and the case of the Colorado baker.
In the past, courts involved in similar cases have ruled differently, putting Christians, business owners, and lawyers on alert that the constitutionally protected right to freely exercise one’s religion is in danger. This case suggests a legal distinction, at least to some courts, between being forced to promote or participate in speech that violates a person’s conscience and, as in other cases, participating in specific activities that conflict with a business owner’s conscience.
While it remains to be seen how future cases will play out, this particular case is a clear victory for religious liberty advocates on any side of the political aisle. Jim Campbell, the ADF attorney who argued this case before the appeals court in December of last year, said in a press release the decision is “a victory for all Americans because it reassures us all that, no matter what you believe, the law can’t force you to express a message in conflict with your deepest convictions.”