An appeals court on Friday upheld the rights of Kentucky Christian shop owner who refused to print shirts for a gay pride parade. The culture wars have become a quagmire of conflicting and inconsistent rulings, but in this religious freedom case, religion won out.
The case centers around Kentucky man Blaine Adamson who owns Hands on Originals, a t-shirt printing shop. In 2012, the business was approached by the Lexington Gay and Lesbian Service Organization to print t-shirts for the Lexington Gay Pride Festival. The proposed shirt featured the words, “Lexington Pride Festival,” on the front and on the back, a list of sponsors of the event. Adams refused service for the organization based on his religious beliefs.
“Because of my Christian beliefs, I can’t promote that,” Adamson told a Human Rights Commission hearing officer. “Specifically, it’s the Lexington Pride Festival, the name and that it’s advocating pride in being gay and being homosexual, and I can’t promote that message. It’s something that goes against my belief system.”
He did, however, offer to connect the organization with another printer, who would do the job for the same price. The GLSO, however, filed suit against him, with Lexington Fayetteville Urban County Human Rights Commission.
Adamson then contacted the Alliance Defending Freedom, a religious rights organization specializing in similar cases. They defended Adamson’s position to the Human Rights Commission.
The Alliance argued that it was more than just refusing service. Forcing someone to print a shirt that they believe is morally wrong is a violation of their beliefs. They said if the situation was reversed, and a homosexual printer had to print anti-gay shirts, would that be wrong? Should an African American printer be forced to print material for the Klu Klux Klan? The government, the Alliance argued, cannot force an individual to print something they do not believe in. The Commission still sided with the GLSO, however, and told Adamson that he was guilty of unlawful discrimination and was required to print the shirt.
The Alliance didn’t give up however and took the matter to court. In April 2015, the case went before a Kentucky Circuit Court. Judge James Ishmael ruled for the shop owner, saying that Adamson wasn’t personally discriminating against the customer, he was discriminating against the message.
“[He] refused to print the T-shirts in question based upon the sexual orientation of GLSA or its members or representatives. … Rather, it is clear beyond dispute that (Hands On Originals) and its owners 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,” Ishmael said in the ruling.
The Alliance Defending Freedom was thrilled. In a press release, they stated, “[The government] can’t force citizens to surrender free-speech rights or religious freedom in order to run a small business, and this decision affirms that. … The court rightly recognized that the law protects Blaine’s decision not to print shirts with messages that conflict with his beliefs, and that no sufficient reason exists for the government to coerce Blaine to act against his conscience in this way.”
However, the Human Rights Commission wasn’t satisfied. They immediately set to appeal. The case was heard before the Kentucky Court of Appeals last Friday. Judge Joy A. Kramer upheld Ishmael’s ruling, again stating that key was the Adamson objected to the message, not the customer.
A Christian printer should not, in Kramer’s opinion, be required to print something they disagree with. “The right of free speech does not guarantee to any person the right to use someone else’s property,” Kramer wrote.
Adamson clarified to the Lexington Herald-Leader that he wouldn’t have any problem printing a shirt for a gay or lesbian customer, as long as the message didn’t promote homosexuality.
The GLSO said that the ruling was about much more than just a shirt.
“Hands On Originals’ position relies on the absurd argument that printing a T-shirt with the number 5 on it, with multicolored circles and the words ‘Lexington Pride Festival,’ somehow promotes ‘homosexual activity,’ and that it is their right to censor that ‘speech,’” the group said. “However, this ruling is not about free speech, it is about how LGBTQ+ persons are treated in their communities every day, as second-class citizens.”
Ray Sexton, the executive director of the Human Rights Commission said he “expected this,” and they will decide this week whether they should appeal to the Kentucky Supreme Court.
“Certainly when cases are decided like this, they may set a precedent for future cases,” Sexton said. “Hopefully that won’t happen here. But we’ll have to take a look at this and see how we’re going to handle it.”
Hands on Original, for now anyway, has won their case. But, they are not the first ones to traverse this contentious territory. The rulings are conflicting and confusing. Until public policy starts to be consistent, the nation’s courts will be littered with the carnage of these lawsuits.