Anyone who has ever married knows that finding the right singer to sing the song; the right baker to create the cake; the right florist to design the floral art; and the right photographer to capture your day visually is a serious slog. Even small towns like Flagstaff, Arizona seem to have wedding artists coming out of the woodwork.
I remember this all too well, from when my then-fiancée and I got married years ago. We had to check out each and every one of these artists, it seemed. The process felt like it was unending: call, visit, review, discuss. Repeat. Repeat again. And again. You know the drill.
But for me, deciding on the wedding photographer was easy: It was his transcendent use of light. We saw a zillion samples, but only this artist brought out the radiance of new beginnings and hope in a way no other did.
And that was important, because our new start began with a bitter ending. You see, the first time I noticed my now-wife, she was silhouetted against the burnished brass and wood of a casket that held her husband’s remains. Beside her, two impossibly small twin daughters clung to her hands.
This certainly was not the scene my young male mind had imagined as the first step to courtship. I was only at the funeral because I felt obliged to do my Christian duty and attend the burial service of a towering 6-foot, 7-inch highway patrolman who attended the same church I did. I walked away from the man’s funeral selfishly grateful that my cameo appearance in that tragedy was the end of it.
But 30 months later, I married the woman who had been his wife.
So this photographer and his gift of light sent a message about marriage that was important for us to capture on our wedding day. Darkness would yield to light just like despair was yielding to hope. We didn’t hire a camera-clicker; we hired the artist who would send a message about our marriage.
Yet 36 years later, there are some terribly powerful people saying terribly wrong things about such artists.
First, and perhaps worst, was what Justice Bosson of the New Mexico Supreme Court said in 2014 when that court held that wedding photographer Elaine Huguenin would have to use her art to celebrate a same-sex union. To do so gravely conflicted with Elaine’s faith and conscience, but according to Justice Bosson, Elaine and her co-owner husband “now are compelled by law to compromise the very religious beliefs that inspire their lives” because that was “the price of citizenship.” Sadly, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to take Elaine’s case, leaving New Mexican artists to pay that price to this day.
But last month, Christian floral artist Barronelle Stutzman of Richland, Washington gave the U.S. Supreme Court a second chance to answer that lingering question: Must she be forced to use her art to celebrate a same-sex marriage that conflicts with her conscience and religious faith?
Barronelle’s case has already been to the Washington Supreme Court twice. That court said that Barronelle does not communicate anything “clearly expressive” through her custom wedding arrangements and thus lacks protection under the First Amendment. Interestingly, the Washington Supreme Court cited the New Mexico case in its decision to deny Barronelle her First Amendment freedoms. And remarkably, Washington went so far as to portray Barronelle’s faithful, conscientious choice regarding marriage as just like the rank racism of the Jim Crow era.
But that is ridiculous. For almost a decade, Barronelle made this same-sex couple custom arrangements for Valentine’s Day and other special days. She enjoyed serving them, and they were greatly pleased with her intricate art.
However, Barronelle’s faith teaches her that marriage is between one man and one woman and is in every instance a sacred and inherently religious celebration. So what Barronelle was asked to do—use her talents to celebrate a same-sex marriage—Barronelle could not do for anyone. Her conflict of conscience was not about the customer, but about the message.
Just weeks ago, in a very similar case involving a calligrapher and painter in Phoenix, the Arizona Supreme Court upheld the artists’ right to create freely. As that court put it,
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. 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.
The Washington Supreme Court was wrong. What Barronelle seeks, and the United States Supreme Court should protect, is simply her right to create freely. And that is a right that every artist, no matter their views, should stand and defend.