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Artists sue to protect religious, artistic freedoms

PHOENIX (BP) — The owners of a stationery art studio in Phoenix are suing the city over an ordinance they say could force them to create art that violates their religious beliefs.

The Christian law firm Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) represents Breanna Koski and Joanna Duka of Brush & Nib in the lawsuit, which they filed May 12 in state court. According to Jonathan Scruggs, one of the ADF attorneys on the case, the artists sought legal advice after seeing lawsuits in other states against Christian bakers and florists whose religious beliefs prevented them from providing services for same-sex weddings. Duka and Koski, who produce hand-painted wedding invitations and other stationery, wanted to know their risks and rights.

The Phoenix City Council passed the ordinance in 2013. Though no couple had challenged a business in the city, ADF looked into the ordinance and found Brush & Nib could face fines of up to $2,500 a day for each day they declined to produce stationery for a same-sex wedding. The women could also face jail time of up to six months.

The ordinance states, “It is unlawful for any owner … of any place of public accommodation … to display, circulate, publicize or mail any advertisement, notice or communication which states or implies that any facility or service shall be refused or restricted because of … sexual orientation, gender identity, or expression.”

That language is broad enough, according to Scruggs, to endanger Brush & Nib’s artistic expression. Even the mention of their Christian beliefs on their website, which could be found to “imply” that they would not create invitations for a same-sex couple’s wedding, could put them at risk.

On the “About Me” page of Brush & Nib’s website, both women mention their beliefs in God and Jesus in their biographies. “Jesus is my hope and salvation,” Duka writes. “I am humbled by His grace and love.”

Scruggs said Duka and Koski can’t separate their art from their Christian beliefs. “They view beauty … as a reflection of God,” he said. And if they went further to explain their beliefs in marriage as only the union of one man and one woman on the site, “it certainly would imply someone in a same-sex marriage is not welcome,” Scruggs said.

Still, no one has yet challenged Duka and Koski for the information on their website, and no same-sex couples have sought their business for a wedding ceremony.

The lawsuit is what’s known as a pre-enforcement challenge, a commonly used legal maneuver that allows citizens to challenge a law before they are cited for violating it. In similar challenges, Planned Parenthood has sued the state of Arizona multiple times in the last decade over new abortion regulations.

Scruggs expects the court to hear the case in the next few weeks, and he believes it’s ultimately destined for the state Supreme Court. It will be an important decision, he said, because it will likely be cited elsewhere throughout the country as similar laws pop up in cities and states.

ADF has also filed for a preliminary injunction to protect Brush & Nib from potential penalties while the lawsuit is being heard. Scruggs said the City of Phoenix will likely file a response to that request sometime within the next few days.

Koski and Duka declined to speak to the media per ADF’s advice. “The law is actually regulating what they can and can’t say,” Scruggs said. “That’s a risk they just can’t take.”

Still, they feel confident, he said: “They feel called to create art in accordance with their beliefs, and they’re willing to stand up for that right. I think they’re excited to do that.”