Liberal Logic on Designer Who Won’t Dress Melania: Conscience Rights for Me But Not for Thee

Jim Campbell | November 21, 2016 | 8:52am EST
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 Donald Trump stands alongside his wife, Melania Trump, after her speech on night one of the Republican National Convention (AP Photo/Behar Anthony/Sipa USA)

Donald Trump’s election has brought no shortage of controversy. One of the latest comes from clothing designer Sophie Theallet, who recently wrote that she “will not participate in dressing or associating in any way with the next First Lady.” In explaining her decision, she invoked her deeply-held belief in “individual freedom.”

“[A]s a family owned company,” Theallet explains, “[w]e value our artistic freedom and always humbly seek to contribute to a more humane, conscious and ethical way to create in this world.” She considers her and her family’s work to be “an expression of [their] artistic and philosophical ideas.”

Ms. Theallet, in other words, wants to operate her business consistent with her conscience. If asked to use her work to promote a cause or a spokesperson whose message she cannot stomach, she plans to decline.

She should have every right to do this, and most would readily agree. But oh how the sentiments of some change when the artist is a not a clothing designer who objects to the incoming president and his family, but a floral artist who does not want to design arrangements to celebrate a same-sex wedding.

Barronelle Stutzman is a 72-year-old floral artist in Washington State. Throughout her many years running a small, family-owned business, she has served everyone, regardless of their race, sex, religion, or sexual orientation.

For over nine of those years, she had a regular customer named Rob Ingersoll—a gay man who she considered a friend. Soon after Washington law changed to allow same-sex couples to obtain marriage licenses, Ingersoll asked Barronelle to design the flowers for his upcoming wedding. Realizing that her convictions about marriage would not allow her to use her artistic talents in this way, but wanting to show compassion, she politely declined his request, explained her dilemma, and offered to refer him to nearby florists who would help him celebrate his ceremony. Ingersoll seemed to understand, and the two of them hugged before he left her shop that day.

So you can imagine Barronelle’s surprise when soon thereafter Mr. Ingersoll (not to mention her state’s attorney general) filed a lawsuit against her. In it, he claimed that she discriminated against him—a man who she had regularly served for nine years—simply because she declined a request to use her artistic skills to celebrate a marriage that conflicts with her beliefs.

The state trial court ruled against Barronelle, and her attorneys at Alliance Defending Freedom appealed on her behalf. Earlier this week, the Washington Supreme Court heard arguments in her case.

I watched those court proceedings and read the legal briefs from Barronelle’s supporters. Funny thing is that those who are now applauding Ms. Theallet’s stand for conscience were conspicuously missing from Barronelle’s corner.

Why is that? Should an artist who opposes a high-profile Republican politician have more freedom than an artist whose beliefs about marriage differ from the government’s? Should a business owner who champions liberal causes have rights that are withheld from a business owner whose views are conservative? Should a rich and famous designer have greater liberty than an ordinary small-business owner?

The answer to these questions must be a resounding “no” because freedom does not truly exist if it’s denied to those who hold “unpopular” views. Freedom isn’t the exclusive right of the “in” crowd.

Ms. Theallet describes her design work to be “an expression of [her] artistic and philosophical ideas,” and leftist elite are quick to agree. But why do they become so skeptical when the person asserting her artistic freedom is a floral artist whose views they don’t like?

It’s because many in that crowd don’t care about true freedom—a freedom that belongs to everyone. If they did, they would recognize that Barronelle, no less than Ms. Theallet, is an artist whose conscience rights must be protected. If they did, their views of art or freedom wouldn’t hinge on the nature of a person’s convictions.

So let’s support Ms. Theallet’s right to live by her conscience—to, as she said, not “participate in dressing” spokespeople for causes that she finds distasteful. But let’s not forget about Barronelle (and the many others like her), who also want to live an authentic life in which they can decline to create artistic expression that conflicts with their deepest beliefs.

Only when the rights of Ms. Theallet and Barronelle are respected will we move closer to achieving true freedom for all.

Jim Campbell is an attorney with Alliance Defending Freedom.


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