Christian small-business owners across the country are under threat as gay activists try to force them to affirm homosexuality.
From a small print shop in Lexington, Kentucky, business owner Blaine Adamson embroiders slogans on hats, prints messages on T-shirts, and wonders if his Christian beliefs could cost him the company he’s owned for over a decade.
For the Lexington native who aspires to live quietly, a noisy crisis erupted three years ago.
In March 2012, a representative from the local Gay and Lesbian Services Organization (GLSO) approached Adamson’s company—Hands On Originals—about printing T-shirts promoting Lexington’s annual gay pride festival.
Adamson said no.
“It was because of the message,” he says. “Sexuality is clearly defined in Scripture between a married man and woman, and anything outside of that is something I just can’t promote.”
It wasn’t the first time Adamson had declined business.
The printer—whose business includes a “Christian outfitters” division for churches and other groups—says he’s turned down orders with vulgar slogans and images he found disrespectful (including a design of Jesus in a pirate’s outfit). Orders promote messages, he says, “and we partake in that and we help speak that message as soon as the image is printed on the T-shirt.”
Adamson told the GLSO he couldn’t print shirts with the gay pride logo because of his Christian beliefs. He offered a referral to another printer in town who would offer the same price.
Three weeks later, the private exchange was public fodder.
A GLSO board member filed a complaint against Hands On Originals with the Lexington-Fayette Urban County Human Rights Commission, saying Adamson discriminated against group members because of their sexual orientation.
Local media ran the story, and a Facebook page called “Boycott Hands On Originals” drew 1,000 fans in two days. Critics flooded Adamson’s phone lines, the mayor rebuked him, and nearly 60 protesters demonstrated against the company in a downtown park. One protester’s sign declared: “I’m straight, not narrow.”
Adamson explained he had served gay clients in the past but simply didn’t want to participate in a message of gay advocacy. Still, three of the company’s biggest customers—including the University of Kentucky (Adamson’s alma mater)—announced they wouldn’t place new orders with the print shop until the complaint was resolved.
Last October, the Lexington human rights commission ruled Adamson violated local anti-discrimination laws. Commissioners ordered the company not to discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation and to undergo “diversity training.” They also said GLSO was due compensation for its “economic loss, pain, embarrassment, and humiliation.”
(GLSO president Aaron Baker—who had told a local paper he wanted “the entire community to be aware” of the case—also acknowledged an Ohio-based company offered to print the group’s $3,000 shirt order for free.)
Adamson is appealing the ruling, and his attorneys at Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) argue that his case—like similar ones winding through courts across the country—is at a crucial intersection between religious liberty and free speech.
Adamson—a husband and father of three—says he’s most concerned for the livelihood of his 32 full-time workers, including gay employees who have stayed with the company through the ordeal. “But the reality is I can’t change my conscience, and I can’t mold it to conform to society,” he says. “God doesn’t change, and His Scriptures don’t change. So I’ll hold the line.”
Holding the line isn’t easy
A rash of high-profile lawsuits across the country against cake bakers, florists, and photographers declining to serve gay weddings have underscored some of the challenges for Christians and others navigating a swiftly changing social tide.
But Adamson’s case shows the waves aren’t just churning against businesses involved with weddings. Any company or organization with religious objections to promoting or endorsing homosexuality could face similar dilemmas as legal demands for affirming homosexuality grow.
The vicious backlash against an Indiana law aimed at protecting religious freedom showed corporate pressure and misinformed outcries could wither even conservative leaders caught in the deluge, and it raised an important question as the 2016 presidential contest began: How will candidates respond?
Adamson recounted his saga the same day Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) launched his presidential bid in nearby Louisville. Despite the fever pitch over religious liberty just a few hours north, Paul didn’t mention the issue in his campaign blitz, and his spokesman didn’t return requests for comment.
With 19 months left before the 2016 elections, candidates have plenty of time to articulate their ideas about religious liberty. But beyond broad discussions of the concept, the next president will continue to appoint agency heads and judicial posts critical to far-reaching decisions about freedom of religion and speech.
Russell Moore of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention says it’s important to begin watching how candidates handle religious liberty—a dynamic he calls “the single most important issue in the 2016 presidential election.”
That’s not because issues like budgets and security aren’t critical, but because religious liberty is “foundational to what it means to be the American people,” he says: “Any society that does not allow for religious freedom is a society that is giving the state a step toward ultimate power.”
Indiana state lawmakers weren’t prepared for the tide to become a torrent. But when Republican Gov. Mike Pence signed a law on March 26 designed to protect religious freedom, a national wave swept over the Midwestern state.
Though the bill mirrored a federal law signed by President Bill Clinton in 1993, and similar legislation in 19 other states, opponents conflated the Indiana law with enshrined discrimination against homosexuals and vilified its supporters as extremists.
Dozens of major corporations from Apple to Angie’s List condemned the law. The Disciples of Christ denomination voted to pull its 2017 convention from Indiana, and organizers of the gaming convention Gen Con threatened to move a conference that draws some 56,000 people to Indianapolis.
Meanwhile, the bill didn’t mention sexual orientation. Like other religious freedom laws (including federal legislation), the law said the government must provide a compelling reason to substantially burden religious exercise. It gives religious citizens a day in court, but it doesn’t guarantee a favorable outcome.
In recent years, such laws have been used to allow a Sikh woman to carry religious articles at work, a Native American boy to wear long hair at school, and a Christian ministry to continue serving ex-convicts.
Still, The Indianapolis Star ran a black front page on its newspaper, with the stark demand: “FIX THIS NOW.”
For Pence, a longtime conservative leader, the pressure was crushing. Though the governor initially defended the law, he soon signed revised legislation to say providers couldn’t use the law to deny services based on sexual orientation. Many social conservatives said the “fix” put religious liberty in more danger than it was before the original law passed. Pence’s office declined to comment.
So did some GOP hopefuls.
While Sen. Rand Paul avoided the issue during the first days of his campaign, other potential candidates also treaded lightly. Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker initially distanced himself from the debate in a press conference, but later told an interviewer protesters were overreacting.
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie defended Pence as having “love in his heart for people,” but didn’t clarify what he thought about the law. Former Hewlett Packard executive Carly Fiorina said she defended religious freedom, but also seemed to endorse gay marriage or civil unions.
Others were more blunt. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) said he endorsed the original law. Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee said the substance of religious freedom laws hasn’t changed: “What has changed is the anger, deception, and intolerance from those on the left who assault our religious liberties.”
Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush said he supported the original law, and noted similar legislation in Florida. But at a private fundraiser, Bush later said while he supports religious liberty “we shouldn’t discriminate based on sexual orientation.”
Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) offered some clarity, saying religious citizens weren’t asking to turn away gay customers from restaurants, but said they shouldn’t be compelled to provide services “to a same-sex marriage that their faith teaches is wrong.”
On the Democratic side, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton tweeted about the Indiana law, a law that’s similar to the federal legislation her husband signed while president: “Sad this new Indiana law can happen in America today. We shouldn’t discriminate against ppl bc of who they love #LGBT.”
Despite the backlash, business owners find support
A local pizza parlor, Memories Pizza in Walkerton, Indiana, temporarily closed after owners answered a reporter’s question about whether they would cater a gay wedding. When the owners said no, social media harassment included a threat to burn down the restaurant.
Supporters started an online fundraising campaign for the restaurant owners: They raised $842,000 in two days. Owner Kevin O’Connor said he would use the money to support churches, charitable causes, and the legal fund for Barronelle Stutzman—a 70-year-old Washington florist facing a lawsuit over declining to provide flowers at a gay wedding for a customer she had served for over nine years.
O’Connor said he still wouldn’t cater a gay wedding because of his Christian beliefs, but the 61-year-old father of eight also added an invitation when he reopened the restaurant: Gay customers are welcome.
As lawsuits wind through courts, initial decisions often fall to state or local civil rights commissions. In December 2013, the Colorado Civil Rights Commission ruled Masterpiece Cakeshop owner Jack Phillips was guilty of discrimination for refusing to bake a cake for a gay wedding. (Phillips is appealing.)
The same commission ruled differently when three Colorado bakeries refused to bake a cake for customer Bill Jack with messages including: “Homosexuality is a detestable sin” and “God loves sinners.” Jack filed a discrimination complaint against one of the bakeries.
Commissioners rejected it. (Jack says he thinks bakeries and other business owners should be allowed to refuse orders based on their consciences, but he says he tried the experiment to prove a point about inconsistent anti-discrimination laws.)
Back in Lexington, Kentucky, Adamson says he isn’t trying to prove a point, but follow his own conscience. He says he doesn’t think the government should be able to compel citizens to speak messages, particularly ones they don’t support.
The Lexington human rights commission’s ruling against him is legally binding, but defendants may appeal such rulings in local courts. Jim Campbell—Adamson’s attorney at ADF—says that’s cold comfort for small-business owners like Adamson who spend years wading through commissions’ investigations before they can appeal to a court.
A judge heard Adamson’s appeal in March, including his objection to the commission’s order for the company to undergo “diversity training.” Campbell says the only purpose for such training is to “re-educate or re-orient” Adamson’s thinking: “They don’t like the way he operates his business consistent with his faith, so they want to change the way he views things.”
Raymond Sexton—head of the Lexington commission—said religious freedom protections don’t apply to Adamson because he owns a business, not a church or other religious organization. Adamson says he can’t compartmentalize his Christian beliefs: “Part of your faith and worship is how you live your life—it’s everything you do.”
Russell Moore of the ERLC says those trying to pressure evangelicals and others to change their thinking don’t understand religious motivation: “that there are people in American life who really believe that they’re going to give an account to an authority higher than the state.”
He also says Christians should emphasize that religious freedom and conscience protections are good for all citizens, not just one group, and that government attempts to change beliefs are dangerous for everyone.
“The people who should be just as alarmed about this as conservative evangelicals are secular progressives,” he says. “This is a use of state power that they will ultimately hate.”
— by Jamie Dean