Freedom of Association: Does it exist or not?

Last month, fashion designer Sophie Theallet said she would refuse to dress First Lady Melania Trump and encouraged fellow designers to follow her lead.

Believing that Donald Trump’s presidential campaign unleashed “the rhetoric of racism, sexism and xenophobia,” Theallet said that her personal convictions of “diversity, individual freedom, and respect for all lifestyles” disallowed her from “dressing or associating in any way” with the first lady.

“As a family-owned company, our bottom line is not just about money. We value our artistic freedom and always humbly seek to contribute to a more humane, conscious and ethical way to create in this world,” Theallet wrote in an email to the fashion designers.

Many of those on the political left cheered Theallet’s courage in taking a bold stand against ideas she finds contemptible. After all, isn’t Theallet’s decision to discriminate against the president-elect’s wife protected under freedom of association, the constitutional right that enables her to decide for herself who she will do business with?

Maybe freedom of association only applies to those on the left?

Ironically, the same people that extolled Theallet’s choice not to dress Melania Trump have long denied that Christians share the same right exercised by the fashion designer.

Here in Washington State, Barronelle Stutzman, a septuagenarian Christian florist, is facing the wrath of the state after she refused to decorate a same-sex wedding. Like Theallet, Stutzman believed that her moral conviction demanded that she not provide a service. And like Theallet, Stutzman felt that her conviction precluded her from using her artistic talents to support or endorse something she views as morally inappropriate.

Unlike Theallet, who was celebrated by liberals everywhere, Stutzman ended up in court being sued for discrimination by the homosexual couple and Washington State Attorney General Bob Ferguson. Because the state has sued her in her personal and professional capacities, she stands to lose her home, life savings, retirement, and business.

In oral arguments presented to the Washington State Supreme Court last month, Attorney General Ferguson claimed that Christians surrender their right to act upon their religious convictions when they start businesses.

To make matters worse, Stutzman isn’t alone. Christians in other states are also being targeted for exercising their right to free association – the same right that protects Theallet’s decision not to dress the wife of a man who holds views she believes to be immoral.

According to the ACLU, “Religion is being used as an excuse to discriminate against and harm others…. The ACLU works to defend religious liberty and to ensure that no one is either discriminated against nor denied services because of someone else’s religious beliefs.”

I’d love to ask the ACLU why they believe it’s permissible for a fashion designer to discriminate against First Lady Trump because of political convictions, yet it’s unacceptable for a Christian to refrain from using her artistic expression for an event she finds morally objectionable.

Our nation’s founding fathers believed that all individuals, including business owners, were entitled to freedom of association. Businesses and customers had the right to decide whether they wanted to do business with someone else. If the other party engaged in morally objectionable behaviors, or if the other party was asking you to violate your personal convictions, then you had the right to refuse to do business with them.

Yet the political left, which has long denied that businesses and individuals possess this fundamental right in issues of sexual orientation and religious conviction, seems perfectly fine with a fashion designer not providing a professional service to the First Lady of the United States.

This intellectual dishonesty from the political left is noxious.

America needs to decide whether it will remain faithful to its historical tradition of protecting freedom of association and other conscience rights for everyone, regardless of their religious and political beliefs. If not, it needs to apply the standard consistently. There shouldn’t be a different standard for Christian florists and liberal fashion designers.


This article was originally written for the Family Policy Institute of Washington.

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