‘Free to Communicate Their Beliefs’: AZ High Court Rules Christian Artists Still Have Rights

Joanna Duka (left) and Breanna Koski (right), owners of Brush & Nib Studio. (Image credit: Alliance Defending Freedom)

The Arizona Supreme Court ruled on Monday that the City of Phoenix cannot use a criminal law to force two Christian artists to design and create custom wedding invitations expressing messages that conflict with the artists’ core beliefs. Such coercion, the court held, would violate the fundamental principle that “an individual has autonomy over his or her speech and thus may not be forced to speak a message he or she does not wish to say.”

The court ruled in favor of Joanna Duka and Breanna Koski, owners of Brush & Nib Studio, who were under threat of up to six months of jail time, $2,500 in fines, and three years of probation for each day the city would find them in violation of the law. 

Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) attorneys representing the two artists filed suit against the city because it interprets its law in a way that illegally controls artistic expression and disregards religious liberty. The court agreed and found that the law violates the freedom of Duka and Koski to express messages consistent with their religious beliefs through their custom wedding invitations.

As CBN News reported back in January, the law made it illegal for business owners to deny service to same-sex couples on the basis of religion. The pair specialize in creating custom artwork using hand painting, hand lettering, and calligraphy to celebrate weddings and other events. 

Duka and Koski say they’ll serve anyone, regardless of sexual preference – but they draw the line at producing custom messages that violate their Christian beliefs.

“The government shouldn’t threaten artists with jail time and fines to force them to create custom artwork, such as wedding invitations, expressing messages that violate their beliefs, and that’s what the court has affirmed today,” said ADF Senior Counsel Jonathan Scruggs, who argued on behalf of Duka and Koski before the Arizona Supreme Court. 

“Joanna and Breanna work with all people; they just don’t promote all messages. They, like all creative professionals, should be free to create art consistent with their convictions without the threat of government punishment. Instead, government must protect the freedom of artists to choose which messages to express through their own creations. The court was right to find that protections for free speech and religion protect the freedom of creative professionals to choose for themselves what messages to express through their custom artwork.”

But back in June of 2018, the Arizona Court of Appeals ruled against the two artists, noting that “antidiscrimination ordinances are not aimed at the suppression of speech but at the elimination of discriminatory conduct.”

However, the Arizona high court found that the Phoenix law violates Duka and Koski’s free speech protections under the state constitution and their free exercise rights under Arizona’s Free Exercise of Religion Act.

“The rights of free speech and free exercise, so precious to this nation since its founding, are not limited to soft murmurings behind the doors of a person’s home or church, or private conversations with like-minded friends and family,” the court wrote in its decision in Brush & Nib Studio v. City of Phoenix. 

“These guarantees protect the right of every American to express their beliefs in public. This includes the right to create and sell words, paintings, and art that express a person’s sincere religious beliefs. With these fundamental principles in mind, today we hold that the City of Phoenix…cannot apply its Human Relations Ordinance…to force Joanna Duka and Breanna Koski…to create custom wedding invitations celebrating same-sex wedding ceremonies in violation of their sincerely held religious beliefs.”

“So this case is not about whether businesses can decline to serve an entire class of people. It is about whether artists can freely choose which messages their own art conveys,” the ADF attorneys explained to the court during the case. 

According to the ADF, Phoenix interprets its ordinance, City Code Section 18-4(B), in a manner that forces artists, like Duka and Koski, to use their artistic talents to celebrate and promote same-sex marriage in violation of their beliefs, even when they decide what art they create based on the art’s message, not the requester’s personal characteristics. The ordinance also bans them from publicly communicating what custom artwork they can and cannot create consistent with their faith.

“We are pleased that the city can no longer enforce its ordinance in a manner that violates freedom of expression or the ability of Joanna and Breanna to live and work consistently with their faith,” Scruggs said. “Joanna and Breanna will now be able to create custom wedding invitations and to communicate about their beliefs without fear of government punishment, as any artist should be free to do. This isn’t just a victory for them. It’s a victory for everyone.”

You can read the Arizona Supreme Court decision in the case here.

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