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Arizona Supreme Court Rules Wedding Invitation Company Doesn't Have To Serve Same-Sex Couples

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Howard Fischer/ Capitol Media Services
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Breanna Koski, one of the owners of Brush & Nib Studio in Phoenix, explains after a January Supreme Court hearing why she and her business partner believe they have a legal right to refuse to produce wedding invitations for same-sex couples.

Anti-discrimination laws do not trump the rights of business owners to refuse to provide services to gays, the Arizona Supreme Court ruled today.

Capitol Media Services reports that, in a divided decision, the majority concluded that the owners of Phoenix business Brush & Nib Studios have a constitutional right to refuse to produce wedding invitations for same-sex couples. Justice Andrew Gould, writing for the 4-3 majority, said the sincerely held religious beliefs of the two women who own the firm protects them from having to produce something that runs contrary to those beliefs.

But in the carefully worded ruling, the justices refused to give blanket protection to all businesses -- including Brush & Nib -- to simply turn away customers because of their sexual orientation.

The ruling is limited to the ability of this firm and presumably others to refuse to produce wedding invitations and similar items that could be seen as celebrating a same-sex marriage. That leaves open the question of whether business owners could be forced under a city's anti-discrimination ordinance to produce other products for gay weddings, like place cards for receptions, which do not specifically celebrate the marriage.

And it leaves in legal limbo the ability of Phoenix and other cities to enforce their ordinances that make it illegal to discriminate based on sexual orientation.

The decision drew dissent from retired Justice Scott Bales.

"Our (federal and state) constitutions and laws do not entitle a business to discriminate among customers based on its owners' disapproval of certain groups, even if that disapproval is based on sincerely held religious beliefs,'' he wrote.

Gould and the majority, however, saw the issue through a different lens.

"The rights of free speech and free exercise (of religion), so precious to this nation since its founding, are not limited to soft murmurings behind the doors of as person's home or church, or private conversations with like-minded friends and family,'' he wrote.

"These guarantee protect the right of every American to express their beliefs in public,'' Gould continued. "This includes the right to create and sell words, paintings, and art that express as person's sincere religious beliefs.''

The case involves Breanna Koski and Joanna Duka, the owners of the studio who say they are devout Christians who believe that the Bible allows marriage only between a man and a woman. They filed suit in 2016 seeking a legal declaration that they were not subject to a city of Phoenix ordinance that makes it illegal for any business that provides services to the public to refuse services because of a person's legally protected status.

That ordinance includes sexual orientation in that definition. The pair, represented by the Christian public-interest law firm of Alliance Defending Freedom, argued that the law amounted to compelling them to say or produce things that were contrary to their sincerely held religious beliefs.

Both a trial judge and the Court of Appeals rejected their claims, saying that the ordinance regulates their conduct, not their speech.

During legal arguments in January, attorney Eric Fraser representing Phoenix conceded the city could not force the women to produce custom invitations with obvious endorsements of same-sex marriage. But he told the justices that they could not refuse to produce all invitations based solely on the sexual orientation of the couple.

Jonathan Scruggs, attorney for the Christian law firm of Alliance Defending Freedom which represented the women, sought a broader legal shield. But he also introduced several samples of the kind of invitations that Brush & Nib produces.

That paved the way for the narrow nature of the ruling.

"We do not recognize a blanket exemption from the ordinance for all of the plaintiffs' business operations,'' Gould wrote.

In siding with the women -- at least on this issue -- Gould said they were entitled to follow their religious views.

"Duka and Koski's beliefs about same-sex marriage may seem old-fashioned, or even offensive to some,'' he wrote. "But the guarantees of free speech and freedom of religion are not only for those who are deemed sufficiently enlightened, advanced, or progressive,'' Gould continued. "They are for everyone.''

And that, he said, goes to the heart of the First Amendment and its guarantee that people can speak their minds and express their beliefs without government interference.

"But here, the city effectively cuts off plaintiffs' right to express their beliefs about same-sex marriage by telling them what they can and cannot say,'' Gould said.

In a released statement, Deputy Campaign Director Justin Unga with the Human Rights Campaign, who says they’re the nation’s largest LGBTQ civil rights organization, said “Governor Ducey’s Supreme Court just issued a license to discriminate against Arizona’s LGBTQ community in an alarming decision that puts the state’s people, reputation, and economy at risk. For years, Arizona’s economic councils, lawmakers, and leaders from every community, including faith and business leaders, worked together to build an Arizona that is open to everyone and attracts investments from across the country.

"Not only does this decision affect countless LGBTQ Arizonans, it sends a message about inclusivity to businesses and institutions seeking to invest in states that welcome all people. Today's decision could also open the door for discrimination against other communities protected by the ordinance including religious minorities and women. LGBTQ

"Arizonans pay taxes, own businesses, serve in our military and contribute to our economy, and they deserve a government that stands with them. HRC joins the vast majority of Arizonans who believe discrimination is wrong, and we will mobilize the over one million Equality Voters in Arizona to proactively pass pro-equality reforms and elect leaders who believe all people deserve dignity and respect.”

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