Public discourse is often marked by sweeping statements, loose analogies, and vague generalities. To some extent, this is the byproduct of our sound-bite culture. But in other ways, this is a rhetorical tool of those who oppose religious liberty and the various religious-freedom laws around the country, including laws that the North Carolina and Louisiana legislatures are currently considering.
These opponents claim that people who serve individuals from all groups, but who decline to express messages or participate in events that conflict with their religious beliefs, are akin to racist restaurant owners in the Jim Crow South. Yet this analogy—this ploy to derail religious-freedom laws—is wholly misplaced.
Blaine Adamson of Hands On Originals, a promotional print shop in Kentucky, is a business owner who happily serves all people but declines to express messages or promote events that conflict with his faith. He serves all—regardless of their race, sex, or sexual orientation—but he cannot print all messages that customers bring to him. When a requested message or a promoted event conflicts with his religious beliefs, Blaine has made it a habit of referring those customers to another nearby printer.
Consistent with that past practice, when a group known as the Gay and Lesbian Services Organization asked Blaine to print a shirt promoting the local pride festival, he politely offered to refer the group to another print shop. Instead of accepting his offer, the group filed a lawsuit against him, even though another printer readily agreed to produce the requested shirts for free. The local government agreed with the GLSO and assumed the mantle of pursuing these charges against Blaine, comparing him (and other people of faith like him) to racists of another era.
Those comparisons are strained and unpersuasive.
For starters, the basic perspective of the two business owners is fundamentally different. The Jim Crow business owner says, “I don’t serve black people.” Blaine, in contrast, says, “I serve all people. But I can’t create or promote any message that conflicts with my religious beliefs.” The former comes from a place of exclusion; the latter, from a position of inclusion. The former is a categorical segregation of a people group; the latter is nothing of the sort.
Class membership is all that matters at the lunch counter. But it is irrelevant to Blaine—context is what matters to him. For example, while Blaine declined to create a message promoting the pride festival, he has previously printed many items for gays and lesbians, including a lesbian musician who performed at that very pride festival. All people are welcome in Blaine’s store.
Blaine declines orders when the customer’s request has a moral element that he cannot support. So for instance, Blaine has never declined, and would never decline, to provide a blank shirt to anyone. But when the shirt is infused with a moral element—when it bears a message that implicates his convictions—Blaine must exercise his conscience. This, of course, is entirely unlike the lunch counter because, barring some unique context, a hamburger served to an individual at a restaurant is a morally neutral good.
Recently, a court in Kentucky saw right through the government’s attempt to compare Blaine to segregationists. As the court explained in its ruling: “There is no evidence in this record that [Blaine] refused to print the t-shirts in question based upon the sexual orientation of GLSO or its members. ... Rather, it is clear beyond dispute that [Blaine] declined to print the t-shirts in question because of the MESSAGE advocating sexual activity outside of a marriage between one man and one woman.” In other words, Blaine is nothing like racist business owners of days gone by.
Lost in the shuffle of this attempt to harken back to Jim Crow is the simple truth that we have never required every business owner to agree to every customer request. No one wants to live in an America like that.
Here, in the land of the free, the government does not require an atheist printer to create materials promoting religion or a baker who supports same-sex marriage to design a cake with messages denouncing his deeply held views. Nor do we compel a pacifist engineer to design tanks that will be used in war or a Democrat journalist to write an article supporting a Republican candidate.
These business owners share a common trait with Blaine. While serving everyone, they have a conscientious objection to producing some messages or participating in some events that conflict with a religious, political or moral belief of utmost importance to them.
They are unlike the people who operated segregated lunch counters. In particular, the atheist printer’s willingness to make business cards for people of faith, even though he won’t create signs promoting their religion, shows that he, unlike the racist restaurant owner, does not discriminate against a class of people. Thus, the atheist printer, just like Blaine, should be free to operate his business consistent with his scruples.
That’s the way it should be because we Americans respect a diversity of opinions, and we don’t require our fellow citizens to violate their deepest political, moral or religious convictions.
People of faith, like Blaine, are simply looking for the same freedom available to the atheist printer, the pacifist engineer and the Democrat journalist. Religious-freedom laws simply ensure that conscientious professionals like Blaine get a fair hearing in court. That’s something all of us should support.
Jim Campbell is senior legal counsel with Alliance Defending Freedom, which is defending the religious freedom and conscience rights of many clients in court.