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The Cost

It was Christmastime, and a reporter in Lexington, Kentucky, decided to interview some schoolchildren for their take on the holiday. Granted access to a local first-grade classroom, he began asking the youngsters what yuletide meant to them. The answers were predictable enough: toys and trees, songs and snow, reindeer and stockings and Santa.

Finally, one little blond-haired boy stepped up for his turn with a quietly curious look on his face, bemused at the answers he’d heard from his friends and classmates.

“Christmas,” he told the reporter, “is about Jesus.”

It wasn’t, he remembers years later, the answer the journalist was looking for.

The simplicity of that little boy’s faith would eventually fade, as he grew into the distractions and detours of youth and early manhood. But it returned, in time, even stronger ... bringing with it that same growing awareness of the distance between his own convictions and those of many of the people around him. A distance that would eventually position him for attack from those who didn’t find, in his beliefs, the answers they were looking for.

 

The candid little boy, Blaine Adamson, grew up to become managing owner of Hands On Originals, a promotional printing company in Lexington that specializes in putting logos, illustrations, and messaging on everything from golf clubs to Frisbees, coffee mugs to beach balls. But especially T-shirts. Every size, every color, every style. If you want your message on a tee in the land of mint juleps and thoroughbreds, Hands On has your back

“Managing owner” makes Blaine sound like an executive, but in reality, his heart is in the design end of the business. While in a fraternity years ago at the University of Kentucky, he found he had a talent for creating artwork for the T-shirts his fellow Greeks sold to raise money.

“I loved the creative side of art,” he says, “just designing things that I felt like were either funny or hit the mark with where our culture was at the time. So I said, ‘Hey, let me see if I can come up with something ... maybe we could sell some more shirts.’” He did, and soon Blaine was being enlisted by other Greeks to design their shirts. By his senior year, he was working for a local printer, making a good living off commissions generated through his own creativity.

His art was sharp, clean, and imaginative, but his once-vibrant faith was not. Things once so clear to that little blond-haired boy seemed less certain to a young man reveling in college life. 

“I remember saying, ‘God, I’m tired of the conviction. I just want to see what life is like,’” Blaine recalls. His fraternity offered all kinds of opportunities for letting go of old constrictions, but amid the parties and general mischief came the nagging sense that God wasn’t letting go of him. The tug-of-war finally culminated on the deck of a cruise ship, where—beer in his hand, girl on his arm, and carousing students swirling around him—Blaine remembers an almost-audible voice asking: “You’ve got everything. Are you where you want to be?”

He wasn’t. “God,” he prayed, “I feel like I’ve been away from You long enough.” It wasn’t a casual repentance. “I knew there was going to be ... a cost. If you choose to follow the Lord, there will be a cost.”

 

At first, the cost was not so apparent as the value. Everything in Blaine’s life seemed to come together. He met his wife, Amy, and began a family. He took a job with Hands On Originals, where he and his friend Craig Humphrey began bringing in big-time clients like the University of Kentucky, and developing new divisions for their company, including “Christian Outfitters,” which marketed T-shirts for people of faith. 

“At the time, Christian-themed shirts were terrible,” Blaine says “They were cheesy.” He set out to “create Christian shirts that would actually be worn by high school and college kids —shirts that were culturally relevant, that wouldn’t just be thrown in a drawer because they were embarrassing. We felt like we could do a better job giving the message of what Christianity was all about.”

Soon, Christian camp directors and mission-team leaders were calling Blaine to say, “Here’s our verse. Create something.” More often than not, they liked what he came up with—and two lessons began to emerge. For Blaine, the realization that, even on a shirt, a coffee mug, or a golf ball ... a message means something. That highlighted for him the need to be mindful of the messages he prints.

“We’re the ones, at the end of the day, who have to print an item,” he says, “and it speaks a message the second it goes off the press. I’m accountable for that.”

The second lesson was for Hands On Originals’ owners. They realized that, with his skills and great passion for creating promotional materials, Blaine should be making the day-to-day decisions for their struggling company. They offered to bring him on as managing owner and hand him the reins of a business half-a-million dollars in debt. He embraced the challenge. But despite his best efforts, nothing seemed to turn the finances around  ... and as Christmas approached at the end of his first year, he was weighing how to tell his employees that they needed to close the company.

Driving down the road, his children tussling in the backseat, Blaine was gnawing on his dwindling options when his youngest—outnumbered in the backseat melee—called for reinforcements: “Daddy! Help!” It suddenly struck Blaine that he’d never put his business struggles to his own Father, in quite that clear, simple way. So he did.

Almost overnight, something changed. In a bad economy, in the dead of winter, Hands On shirts started flying off the shelves. They kept flying in the months that followed; sales soared “like God reached down and turned the faucet on,” Blaine says. In three years, the company had paid off its debts and become one of the preeminent shops of its kind in the region.

This is a case that’s important for all Americans … no one in our country should be forced to promote ideas that they disagree with.”
— ADF Senior Legal Counsel Jim Campbell

The faucet was still wide open one day in 2012 when Blaine returned a call from a prospective customer, asking him to print shirts with a message promoting the Lexington Pride Festival, an upcoming event sponsored by the Gay and Lesbian Services Organization (GLSO).

“I knew as soon as he told me what he wanted, that wasn’t something I was going to be able to print.” Blaine explained that he couldn’t print the shirt, but offered to connect the man with another local company that would create the shirts at the same cost Hands On would have charged. The man, clearly unhappy, quickly ended the call. 

Blaine put down the phone ... and knew he was in for trouble.

“I remember him warning me that this was going to be big,” Amy says, “and just that foreboding feeling, waiting to see.” Blaine tried to brace his fellow owners and co-workers for the impact, but most just didn’t believe it would be that big a deal. They were wrong.

The following Monday brought news that the GLSO had filed a complaint with the Lexington-Fayette Urban County Human Rights Commission, alleging Blaine had illegally discriminated against the man who had asked for the Pride Festival shirts.

With the charge—“like the flip of a switch”—came a stunning deluge of attacks. Front-page headlines in the local paper. A flood of derogatory comments on Facebook. An avalanche of emails and phone calls bitterly denouncing Blaine as a bigot. Public excoriation by the mayor. And word that crucial longtime clients—like the University of Kentucky, which Hands On Originals had worked with for years—were now cancelling their contracts with the company.

They pulled out before a judge had even seen the case,” says Craig Humphrey, Blaine’s longtime right-hand man at the company. “Before we were found ‘guilty’ or ‘innocent.’”

The blistering assault came from every direction. By nightfall, Blaine and Amy were sitting on their bedroom floor, in darkness, shattered and sobbing. “I began to cry out to the Lord,” Blaine says. “God, I will stand, no matter what the cost. But I am so broken right now.” 

Just then, the doorbell rang.

A large crowd from the Adamsons’ church had come en masse to hug and cry and pray and show their support. Across town, one of Blaine’s co-owners was surprised by a similar crowd from his church. It was a turning point. Beginning next morning, the torrent of calls and social media contacts became more supportive, encouraging—and, for the most part, continue to be.

 “We’re called to believe what the Scripture teaches— 
not what we hope it teaches, or what our culture tells us it teaches.”
–Blaine Adamson

One of those next-day calls was from Alliance Defending Freedom, a group Humphrey had urged Blaine to contact. Within an hour, an ADF attorney was in his office, telling a still dazed Blaine that his was not an isolated case, that other Christian business leaders across the country were grappling with similar legal assaults, and that ADF would be glad to take on his case, free of charge.

Blaine still remembers the relief: “It was just like, ‘Okay, God—You’ve got this. It’s going to be all right. It’s going to work out.’” That relief deepened, in the days that followed, with the growing realization of what it meant to have Christian attorneys defending him.

You don’t have to worry about trying to explain why you’re passionate, why you’re standing by your convictions, why you’re willing to take the heat,” he says. I can’t explain what that does to you, having someone show up who says, ‘You’re not crazy. You haven’t lost your marbles. Fight the good fight.’” 

Blaine’s a very easygoing guy,” says ADF Senior Legal Counsel Jim Campbell. “But he takes his faith seriously. He thinks critically about how his faith and work interact and how his beliefs inform everything he does.”

What makes America unique is our freedom to peacefully live out our beliefs,” says Bryan Beauman, a former ADF staff lawyer and now an Allied Attorney with a Lexington firm that, together with ADF, is representing Blaine. “We don’t force people to promote messages that are contrary to their convictions.”

Which is why “this is a case that’s important for all Americans,” says Campbell. “Whether you have religious convictions, political convictions, or philosophical convictions … no one in our country should be forced to promote ideas that they disagree with.” 

The Lexington-Fayette Urban County Human Rights Commission didn’t see it that way, ruling in November 2014 that Blaine had violated local ordinances prohibiting sexual-orientation discrimination when he turned down the order for the Lexington Pride Festival. This, despite Blaine’s long record of employing and serving people who identify as gay and lesbian. And despite the intercessions of people like the lesbian owners of a print shop in New Jersey, who actually went on national television to support Blaine.

Their perspective was, ‘We wouldn’t want to be forced to print some messages, so we can understand you all not wanting to print a message with which you disagree,’” Humphrey says.

ADF staff and Allied Attorneys appealed the commission’s ruling to Fayette County Circuit Court, which, in April 2015, overruled the commission’s decision, saying Blaine was free to decline to print messages that conflict with his religious beliefs and that the government cannot force him to do otherwise. The commission has now appealed that decision to the state’s court of appeals.

According to some, printers should be forced to promote messages that violate their own consciences,” says Humphrey. Blaine’s demurral “was done in the most decent, polite, kind, and generous way that you can say, ‘I’m sorry, but I can’t do this.’ And yet that won’t be tolerated.”

Why would I, as a business owner—whose business has grown, year after year—want to bring this on my company?” Blaine asks. “I know we’re going to lose business because of this decision. If anything, as a businessman, I would want to stay as far away from that as possible.”

Still, he says, “we’re called to believe what the Scripture teaches— not what we hope it teaches, or what our culture tells us it teaches.” And “there’s something that calls out to me that says I’ve got to speak truth, regardless of what it costs me.”

 

What worried Blaine, much more than the cost to himself, was what his stand might cost others. During that first dark night of soul-searching, amid the media barrage and deserting clients, his worst fear was that his choice might mean his employees would lose their jobs. 

None did. For all the major clients who left, enough have remained to keep the business afloat. 

And while some of his workers disagreed with Blaine’s position—and told him so—they’ve all stayed. “They trust his character,” Humphrey says. “That’s one of the things that’s held the company together. We’re not all coming from the same worldview, but they respect Blaine as a fair-minded man.”

“It’s not that God needs people to understand,” Blaine says. “God is God. But from my human perspective, I want them to see God’s glory and understand that He’s faithful. I want His faithfulness shown to people who don’t even believe in Him.”

And in the eyes of some who do. “One of the good things about this has been the impact that it’s had on my own family,” Blaine says. “Our kids have seen that ... if they’re going to live out their faith, it’s not just going to be easy, happy, and fun. There are going to be those who are against you. And you need to know what you believe and make sure you believe it.”

“I want God to find joy in what we do and how we work, how we treat our employees, and the messages we print,” he says. “So if someone walks in and says, ‘Hey, I want you to help promote something,’ I can’t promote something that I know goes against what pleases Him.” To do that, Blaine says, would make his faith nothing more than a Sunday morning ritual, when in fact real worship “is in what we do every day. It’s how we treat our families. It’s the shows we watch. It’s how we work and how we treat our employees and customers.” 

Posted at Blaine’s desk is a paraphrase of a verse he heard a man pray in a church service, during the early days of storm and upheaval. “‘In quietness and trust, in repentance and rest, will be your salvation (Isaiah 30:15).’” 

“It was just like it was the voice of God, speaking so deeply to me,” Blaine says. “It just brought me such peace. It’s stayed with me through the whole process. Any decision I was about to make, this verse kept me right in line where I was supposed to be.” And still does.

“I had a young lady—a believer— say to me, ‘Why didn’t he just print the shirt?’” his wife, Amy, remembers. “It just broke my heart, because it was like, ‘Take the easy way out. Is it really that big of a deal?’” But “Blaine desires to be righteous, above all else. And even in the church, that’s rare. I hope I would have done the same thing ... and followed through with my decision.”

“We feel such a peace right now that, even if we ultimately lose the case and have to sell the business, it’s okay,” Blaine says. “We’re going to continue to follow what God says in His Word. My hope is that somehow through it, the Gospel goes out.” And, in the end, the owner of Hands On Originals is confident Whose hands he is in. 

“Wherever God has us,” he says, “He has us.” 

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