When should a business owner’s decisions be condemned as illegal discrimination?

Imagine a print shop owned by a devout atheist. A Muslim woman, wearing a hijab, walks into the shop and orders a sign saying, “Allahu Akbar! Allah is greater than all!”

Scenario A: The shop owner sees the woman’s hijab when she walks through the door and yells, “Religious nuts aren’t welcome here. Get out!”

Scenario B: The shop owner sees the woman and asks how he can help her. When he learns about the message she wants him to convey on the sign, he says, “I’m sorry. I’m an atheist and I can’t promote the idea that any god is great. But I can refer you to a shop that will create the sign.”

Do you see the two scenarios as equivalent? Do you think both involve religious discrimination deserving of punishment?

If you would punish the shop owner who sees someone’s religious garb and kicks them out (Scenario A), but not the person who serves people of all faiths but declines to promote messages that violate his conscience (Scenario B), you’re in good company.

A Kentucky court drew that line just last week. It’s a “straightforward proposition,” the court explained, that a shop owner cannot order someone off the premises or otherwise decline to provide service “for no reason except the person’s protected status.”

But it is equally true, the court noted, that declining to create speech “conveying a message in support of a cause or belief” is not discrimination based on a person’s protected status.

In other words, refusing to serve someone because of who they are—black, white, Muslim, female, etc.—is quite different from declining to speak someone’s message because you disagree with it.

Given this distinction, the Kentucky court ruled in favor of Blaine Adamson and his printing business, Hands On Originals.

Adamson serves all people, but he cannot print all messages. He has declined multiple requests to promote messages that violate his Christian beliefs.

For years, that never created any issues, but trouble arose when the Gay and Lesbian Services Organization asked Adamson to create shirts promoting a gay pride festival.

Adamson politely declined that order because he could not in good conscience promote the requested message.

Although he offered to connect the group with another printer who would create the shirts at the same price, the group, along with the Lexington-Fayette Urban County Human Rights Commission, sought to punish him.

For them, it didn’t matter that Adamson gladly serves everyone and has regularly employed gays and lesbians. They wanted to force him to speak messages contrary to his core beliefs.

This zeal to force people to speak unwanted messages is widespread.

Many creative professionals, including a photographer, a video and film production company, a painter and calligrapher team, and a cake artist, are currently involved in litigation to defend their freedom to choose what messages they convey using their expressive talents.

The principle of freedom at stake in these cases is important for all Americans, regardless of their views on issues like same-sex marriage. Two lesbian printers recognized this truth, and publicly supported Adamson’s freedom to decline to convey messages promoting the pride festival.

Like those courageous women, it’s high time we recognize that freedom of speech is essential for a flourishing democracy and that it is unjust for laws to compel people to speak messages that violate their values.

Those who would brand Adamson and creative professionals like him as unlawful “discriminators” fail to acknowledge that choosing what messages to speak is a far cry from irrationally refusing to serve people just because of who they are.

A Kentucky court recognized the difference. If we don’t—if we equate Scenario A with Scenario B—things could soon go downhill not only for Adamson, or even the two lesbian printers, but for the rest of us as well.