(RNS) — When we decided to start an art studio together, we knew there would be highs and lows. We didn’t know the lows would include the threat of facing jail time. But the highs of winning a tremendous victory for free speech? We really didn’t see that coming, either.
Yet that’s exactly what happened this week when the Arizona Supreme Court ruled that the city of Phoenix cannot compel us to imagine and create custom artwork that violates our beliefs. That’s great news for all who value freedom, not just in Arizona, but across the country.
We are artists. We get up every morning inspired and excited to create beautiful things. And we believe our love of beauty and our artistic talents are gifts from God, and that the way we use those talents therefore matters to God. So when we decided to start Brush & Nib Studio, a calligraphy and hand-painting business, we knew we would be pouring ourselves into every custom piece we made, whether wedding invitations, wedding vows or wedding signs.
But not long after we opened our studio, we came face-to-face with a serious threat. As artists, we gladly serve everyone, but there are certain messages we can’t promote through our artwork — regardless of who asks us. That’s true of many artists. For instance, like many artists, we won't create artwork promoting racism or exploiting women — no matter who asks us. The same is true for artwork that celebrates any view of marriage that is not marriage between one man and one woman.
But Phoenix prohibited us from making that decision. Its law threatened us with up to six months in jail, $2,500 in fines and three years of probation for each day we made certain artistic decisions in accordance with our conscience. In other words, operating an art studio in Phoenix came at a price: Violate our convictions or go to jail.
When artists choose which messages to promote through their art, most call that artistic freedom. But Phoenix called it “discrimination.” That’s just wrong. Under Phoenix’s theory, a Jewish painter could be forced to design and paint a banner for an anti-Semitic march. A female graphic designer could be forced to create custom graphics for a website that demeans women. And a Muslim singer could be forced to sing at a Christian Easter service.
The threat we faced from Phoenix’s law put us in a very difficult position. We felt a strong calling to use our artistic talents to celebrate wonderful moments in people’s lives. We didn’t want to abandon our dreams and close our studio. But compromising our deepest beliefs wasn’t an option. So we did something we never imagined: We filed a lawsuit through our Alliance Defending Freedom attorneys to, well, defend freedom.
That was over three years ago. Since then, our case has wound its way through the courts. We experienced a lot of attacks and name-calling along the way. But we never regretted taking a stand. Taking a stand for our freedom. Taking a stand for your freedom. Taking a stand for everyone’s freedom. Even those who disagree with us. And now, after a long struggle, the Arizona Supreme Court has rejected Phoenix’s position and upheld the freedom of artists to choose which messages they promote through their art.
Today, as our long legal saga comes to an end, we are thrilled that we can now create freely without fearing jail time or other government punishment. But more than that, we’re grateful our stand will help secure freedom for all artists who strive to create art that reflects their deepest beliefs. Freedom is a wonderful blessing we must cherish and defend.
And with that freedom, we and other artists can go about the work of making the world just a little more beautiful.
(Joanna Duka and Breanna Koski are the artists and owners of Brush & Nib Studio in Phoenix. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)