Arizona media sizzle over whether calligraphers can decline to create gay wedding invites

Lawsuits involving gay plaintiffs and businesses in the wedding industry are plentiful these days. Usually these cases involve a jilted couple whose bakery, event destination or photographer wants no part of the nuptials for religious reasons.

But this time around, a pair of Phoenix calligraphers sued the city's human rights ordinance, saying they have a right to turn down requests to create gay-themed custom-designed invites. The state Supreme court ruled in their favor on Monday.

How did the mainstream press respond? Did this story get covered as news or did it draw editorial lightning bolts and that’s that?

We'll start with the Arizona Republic's news story with the headline: Phoenix artists don't have to make LGBTQ wedding invitations, Arizona Supreme Court rules.”

A Phoenix ordinance that protects lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people from discrimination cannot be used to force artists to create custom wedding invitations for same-sex couples, the Arizona Supreme Court ruled Monday. The high court's decision overturns multiple lower-court decisions that protected the portion of Phoenix's nondiscrimination ordinance that applies to the LGBTQ community. An attorney for Phoenix insisted that the ruling was narrow and did not strike down the city law. Rather, the court ruled that "one company" could refuse to make "one type of product" for LGBTQ couples, he said.

"Today's decision is not a win, but it is not a loss. It means we will continue to have a debate over equality in this community," Mayor Kate Gallego said. However, LGBTQ community advocates fear that the decision, however narrow, creates a pathway for other lawsuits. "This decision opens the door for other bigoted owners to outright discriminate against LGBTQ people for who we are and who we love," Brianna Westbrook, vice-chair of the Arizona Democratic Party, tweeted after the ruling.

Not only are the plaintiffs not even mentioned until one-third of the way through the piece, there is no reaction from conservative First Amendment groups.

The only POVs provided are from left of center. The plaintiffs’ attorney did get four paragraphs closer to the bottom of the piece.

The key point: Does the story separate a blanket refusal to do business with LGBTQ citizens from a refusal to create artistic materials linked to a specific rite that — think Religious Freedom Restoration Act language — violated the conscience of the artist?

(Alliance Defending Freedom attorney Jonathan ) Scruggs said the women happily would sell their premade invitations to a same-sex couple, or help a same-sex couple design a custom art piece for their home. They just don't want to create materials that will be used in the celebration of a practice they don't condone.

He equated his argument to a Muslim designer declining to make Easter decorations, but still serving Christian customers with other services. He said business owners can serve all members of the community without celebrating things they disagree with.

In case readers didn’t get the strong message that newspaper disagreed with the ruling, there was an opinion piece about the case that ran elsewhere in the paper with this headline: The Arizona Supreme Court just gave 'devout' bigots the OK to discriminate.”

There is no conservative rebuttal to this piece. The writer crassly identifies the defendants positions with something approaching the Ku Klux Klan:

It’s a shame this is even a issue. We can hold any beliefs we want. But discrimination is discrimination. "Heterosexuals only" is the same as "whites only.” Every other argument is smoke and mirrors.

Reporters understand the difference between news and opinion.

Readers? Not so much. If they see one side on the editorial page and not the other, what are they to think of where the sympathies of the newsroom lie? Or doesn’t the Republic care about appearances any more?

The New York Post repeated much of what everyone else said, although it added an interesting tidbit that, while sexual orientation is a protected class in several Arizona cities, it is not under state law. That may explain why the state Supreme Court ruled as it did.

Fox Business News’ coverage led with the actual words of the court’s decision. It then ran react from ADF’s attorney and then a statement from the city of Phoenix.

A much more nuanced piece appeared in the Arizona Capitol Times .

The Advocate ran this headline: “Arizona High Court Grants Stationery Shop License to Discriminate” even though said discrimination only involved custom invitations. All other products could be bought by anyone, gay or straight. (Note to the Advocate: Don’t quote a newspaper quoting someone’s tweet. Log onto Twitter yourselves. )This piece sketches out the history of the case and the fact that the plaintiffs had never received an order for gay-themed invites.

Clearly, a shot across the bow from a gay couple is not a factor anymore. Last month, I did a piece for GetReligion about a Minneapolis company that does wedding videos –- but not gay wedding rite videos. The videographers filed a preemptive lawsuit, backed by the Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), the same organization that backed the Phoenix calligraphers. Does anyone see a pattern here?

The media I’m citing are mostly in Arizona, as is the ADF, which is based in Scottsdale. Why isn’t anyone covering the ADF’s newish legal strategy here? I’m seeing a lot of knee-jerk reactions but little serious journalism. Think Progress is the only outlet that’s gone in that direction but they went low by claiming the ADF was doing it to raise funds.

More enlightening is a think piece in the Federalist by the main attorney in the Arizona case, who explains why the two women decided to sue. I wanted to call attention to one paragraph that he wrote:

While others will try to make Joanna and Breanna’s case about same-sex marriage, that’s not the issue. The issue is freedom. If you have a strong opinion on any matter — same-sex marriage, abortion, marijuana use, climate change, animal rights, the death penalty, income inequality, gun control — you should hope Joanna and Breanna prevail. If they do, freedom triumphs. You can speak and create in accordance with your beliefs, and so can they. If they lose, it may spell disaster for your ability to live consistently with your beliefs.

The ADF, by the way, seems to be on the warpath. Read this New York Times piece about its new lawsuit, on behalf of an Orthodox Jew, about the New York city council recalling its law banning conversion therapy.

You heard that right. More in a future post.

The deeper story is what the ADF, which claims a part in 55 U.S. Supreme Court victories, is up to. I’ve been looking for that expansive Atlantic, New Yorker or even New York Times profile on this group, but I’m not finding it.

Media Matters did two a two-parter on them this past spring and the Nation did a similar effort in late 2017, but both pieces only see the ADF through an anti-gay-rights lens.

There’s a reason those calligraphers decided on a preemptive strike. I’m hoping some mainstream media reporter, somewhere, will write about it. This story isn’t going away.

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