I’ve shared with you many times about the growing number of Christian businesses who are being sued for refusing to service same-sex commitment ceremonies and weddings.
At first blush, one would think that this is a religious freedom issue – and obviously, that is the case.
But have you considered that these are also free speech cases?
Let’s look at what’s happening to Washington State florist Barronelle Stutzman, who is the owner of Arlene’s Flowers.
A born-again Bible-believing Christian, Mrs. Stutzman has served and employed people who identify as homosexual during her entire career.
But when her friend Robert Ingersoll – a homosexually identified client she served for more than 11 years – asked Mrs. Stutzman to use her creative skills to make floral arrangements for his upcoming same-sex ceremony, Stutzman declined. She couldn’t use her God-given talent to make a statement of support to something she believed countered what God says about marriage.
Now, if Stutzman lived in one of the more than 20 states that have Religious Freedom Restoration Acts (RFRAs), then she would be able to use religion as a defense. After all, that is what these laws do: help keep a person with strong religious beliefs from being penalized for trying to lead their life in accordance with their faith.
But in this country, people of faith in some states have more protections than others. And since Stutzman lives in RFRA-free Washington State, she has fewer protections. So she can’t use faith as a legal defense.
But she can still argue that her actions are covered by the First Amendment recognition of the right to free speech.
Think about it this way: Free speech is also freedom from government-compelled speech.
In other words, people should be free to say – or not say – what they want, especially when it comes to matters of conscience.
And in Stutzman’s case, she’s not the only creative professional who is rightly concerned about what her artwork communicates – just consider these two cake makers and the top designers who refused to dress first lady Melania Trump.
Now, let’s make one thing clear: Stutzman is a sincere woman of faith who has consistently treated homosexually identified people with the love and respect they deserve. She serves all people – but she can’t celebrate all events. That’s why she had to draw the line at communicating a message of support on something she can’t endorse.
But her state government doesn’t recognize her right to be free from government-controlled speech. Along with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), the state attorney general sued her for acting consistently with her faith. And last week, the Washington State Supreme Court ruled against her, holding that she was bound by state law to use her talents to celebrate something she viewed as immoral.
Stutzman’s lawyer with Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) explains it this way:
“This case is about crushing dissent. In a free America, people with differing beliefs must have room to coexist. It’s wrong for the state to force any citizen to support a particular view about marriage or anything else against their will. Freedom of speech and religion aren’t subject to the whim of a majority; they are constitutional guarantees.”
“Our nation has a long history of protecting the right to dissent, but simply because Barronelle disagrees with the state about marriage, the government and ACLU have put at risk everything she owns. This includes not only her business, but also her family’s savings, retirement funds, and home.”
Yes, Stutzman might lose it all because the Washington Supreme Court’s decision affirms a lower-court ruling that requires Barronelle to pay the attorneys’ fees that the ACLU racked up in suing her. And in cases like this, the attorneys’ fees for each side might be hundreds of thousands of dollars, if not more.
Does this sound reasonable to you? Even in a deeply divided, pluralistic society, can’t we do better?
A well-known pastor friend of mine once remarked that in his culturally diverse city, residents peacefully co-exist because they don’t go out of their way to poke a finger in the eye of a merchant just to make a point. For example, a Christian doesn’t demand that a Jewish restaurant cater a dinner featuring pork. They respect one another and appreciate the fact that there is strength in their diversity.
What’s up next for Barronelle Stutzman? She and ADF are taking her case up to the Supreme Court.
Win or lose, I believe Mrs. Stutzman’s perseverance, bravery and principled stance make her a free speech hero. Please join me in praying for her.
Where do you come down on this issue? Let me know in the comments section, below.