(CN) – The Arizona Court of Appeals denied a plea Thursday from two stationary designers who said their religious beliefs prohibited them from making invitations for gay weddings, in violation of a Phoenix city ordinance banning LGBT discrimination.
Joanna Duka and Breanna Koski, co-owners of Brush & Nib Studio, sued the city of Phoenix in May 2016 in Maricopa County Court, claiming that a city ordinance prohibiting them from refusing to serve same-sex couples violated their religious rights. The studio specializes in calligraphy and hand-painted wedding invitations.
As evangelical Christians, Duka and Koski said they “cannot use their God-given talents and imaginations to create art that discredits Him,” which includes same-sex marriages.
In the 26-page opinion upholding the state court’s decision, Judge Lawrence Winthrop pulled guidance from Monday’s U.S. Supreme Court decision, in which a same-sex couple from Colorado sued the baker who refused to bake their wedding cake.
The Supreme Court ruled in favor of the baker, but not on the grounds that his religious beliefs allowed him to refuse service to LGBQT couples.
"In light of these cases and consistent with the U.S. Supreme Court’s decisions, we recognize that a law allowing appellants to refuse service to customers based on sexual orientation would constitute a ‘grave and continuing harm,’" Winthrop said in Thursday’s ruling.
"Allowing a vendor who provides goods and services for marriages and weddings to refuse similar services for gay persons would result in ‘a community-wide stigma inconsistent with the history and dynamics of civil rights laws that ensure equal access to goods, services, and public accommodations,’” Winthrop said, quoting Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy’s opinion.
“Appellants are not penalized for expressing their belief that their religion only recognizes the marriage of opposite-sex couples,” Winthrop wrote. “What appellants cannot do is use their religion as a shield to discriminate against potential customers.”
“Importantly, the Arizona court applied the Supreme Court’s Monday decision in Masterpiece Cakeshop, affirming once again the importance of laws protecting the dignity of LGBT people in the public marketplace,” said Joshua Block, senior staff attorney with the ACLU of Arizona. “We will continue to fight the dangerous notion that businesses have a constitutional right to discriminate.”
Although Arizona does not have anti-discrimination laws protecting LGBT citizens, 19 other states have passed laws considering gender identity a protected class and accordingly prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation in public places.
“The legal ruling protects all and confirms that everyone should not be treated differently regardless of sexual orientation, race, gender, religion, or disability,” said city attorney Brad Holm. “The city of Phoenix will continue to observe its non-discrimination ordinance that protects and respects the rights of all residents.”
Pitting religious freedoms against “ordinances which prohibit places of public accommodation from discriminating based on sexual orientation,” the Brush & Nib case was the first of its kind in Arizona. Similar anti-discrimination laws have also been challenged by a New Mexico wedding photographer and a Washington florist.
Duka and Koski , who recently applauded the Masterpiece Cakeshop decision, deferred to their attorneys for comment.
“Artists shouldn’t be forced under threat of fines and jail time to create artwork contrary to their core convictions,” said attorney Jonathan Scruggs, senior counsel for the Alliance Defending Freedom. “The court’s decision allows the government to compel two artists who happily serve everyone to convey a message about marriage they disagree with.”
Scruggs also argued “in Monday’s Masterpiece Cakeshop decision, the Supreme Court reaffirmed that ‘religious and philosophical objections to gay marriage are protected views and in some instances protected forms of expression.’ Phoenix’s position contradicts this principle and violates our clients’ artistic and religious freedom. We intend to appeal the court’s decision.”
In addition to refusing to accept commissions from same-sex couples, Duka and Koski had wanted to post a sign on their business asserting their right to refuse to design wedding decor for any couple that was not a man and woman.
The court’s opinion suggests the designers instead post a sign proclaiming their support of heterosexual weddings or a disclaimer indicating that their work does not imply endorsement of the couple.
Judges Jennifer Campbell and Paul McMurdie joined Winthrop on the panel.
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