27 Jul 2017

Appeals Court Sides with Christian T-Shirt Company

Founder Raul Rivera

In recent weeks, the United States Supreme Court announced that next term (October 2017) it will hear the case involving Masterpiece Cakeshop, a Colorado bakery that refused the business of a gay couple in 2012.

The question that many are asking is, “Do for-profit corporations have the same religious protections as churches and religious nonprofit corporations?” 

It should come as no surprise that many people are asking this question. We are continually learning of news stories about bakers, florists, and photographers being sued for discrimination. Those being sued for discrimination deem such actions as an assault on their religious liberties.

The outcome of the Masterpiece Cakeshop case* before the United States Supreme Court will be of interest to those on both sides of the spectrum. This is especially so since a T-shirt printing company in Kentucky recently won its case when anti-discrimination laws clashed with religious liberties. 

In this Kentucky case*, Hands On Originals (HOO), a for-profit T-shirt printing company, was sued for refusing to print a T-shirt design with the words “Lexington Pride Festival 2012,” the number “5,” and a series of rainbow-colored circles around the “5”; a message that conflicted with the beliefs and convictions of HOO’s ownership. 

So, how is it that we have two similar stories but two different outcomes? 

I will spend time discussing the case involving HOO in order to give some clarification. In addition, I will discuss how all of this applies to church-owned businesses, which is a strategy that we have been teaching to pastors and ministry leaders for years at our conferences.

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The complaint against Hands On Originals (HOO) 

In 2012, Blaine Adamson, owner of HOO, received a telephone call from the Gay and Lesbian Services Organization (GLSO). The GLSO representative who called HOO asked Adamson to create some T-shirts promoting the upcoming Lexington Pride Festival. 

After receiving more information about the event and specifics of the T-shirt design, Adamson knew that the GLSO would not be happy with his response. 

As respectfully as he could, Adamson informed the representative of GLSO that he would be unable to handle their request because promoting that message conflicts with his “Christian beliefs.” Adamson offered to connect GLSO with another printer business that would match his prices, but that was not enough to prevent GLSO from filing a complaint with the Lexington Fayette Urban County Human Rights Commission (Commission).

Upon investigation into the matter, the Commission determined that HOO’s refusal to print the T-shirts for GLSO was in violation of Lexington-Fayette Urban County Government’s public accommodation ordinance. 

The Fayette Circuit Court and the court of appeals, however, did not agree with the Commission’s determination.

Factors that influenced the decision in the court of appeals

I think there were several determining factors that influenced the court of appeals to affirm the Fayette Circuit Court’s decision. I have listed a few below:

1. HOO’s “Right to Refuse” policy. 

In its case opinion, the court of appeals refers to HOO’s “Right to Refuse” policy on its website by stating, “According to HOO’s policy and mission statement, which appears on its website, HOO’s menu of services is limited by the moral compass of its owners.”

HOO’s “Right to Refuse” policy reads as follows:

“Hands On Originals both employs and conducts business with people of all genders, races, religions, sexual orientations, and national origins. However, due to the promotional nature of our products, it is the prerogative of Hands On Originals to refuse any order that would endorse positions that conflict with the convictions of the ownership.”

All church-owned businesses should include a similar policy on its website that is easy for the general public to find. It is also ideal to include a similar message on a “Terms of Service” page.

2. This was not the first time HOO declined to print a certain message. 

The court of appeals also noted this was not the first time HOO declined to print a certain message for potential customers. The court of appeals stated,

“In this vein, the record provides examples of subject matter HOO has refused to promote because its ownership has deemed it morally objectionable, such as adult entertainment products and establishments. The record also provides examples of images HOO has refused to promote, such as [a foul word] and depictions of Jesus dressed as a pirate or selling fried chicken.”

What makes this case significant is that HOO was not hiding behind a religious curtain by selectively limiting what it would print, but rather, it was consistently running its business in accordance with the owner's religious beliefs.

This case lines up with what we teach at all of our conferences. We have held that implementing a prohibited activities clause in every church and business will serve as insulation from many of the public accommodation laws that attempt to force churches and for-profit businesses to engage in activities that violate their sincerely-held religious beliefs.

What the court of appeals determined

When reviewing the opinion of the court of appeals, there is much to consider. I recommend that you take the time to read the opinion.

I will try to simplify the opinion in a succinct manner for you: 

  • The court of appeals acknowledged, “HOO qualifies as a ‘public accommodation’ and is therefore subject to the fairness ordinance.” That was not the issue at hand.
  • The court said, “The overarching issue presented by this appeal is whether, by refusing to print the T-shirts requested by the GLSO, HOO ‘den[ied] an individual the full and equal enjoyment of [its] goods, services, facilities, privileges, advantages, and accommodations’ and therefore violated the fairness ordinance.”
  • The court of appeals found, “[N]othing of record demonstrates HOO, through Adamson, refused any individual the full and equal enjoyment of the goods, services, facilities, privileges, advantages, and accommodations it offered to everyone else because the individual in question had a specific sexual orientation or gender identity.” (bolded emphasis added)
  • The court of appeals determined, “[T]he ‘service’ HOO offers is the promotion of messages.” It also noted, “Nothing in the fairness ordinance prohibits HOO, a private business, from engaging in viewpoint or message censorship.” (bolded emphasis added)

How this relates to church-owned businesses

For many years, we at StartCHURCH have taught churches and ministries the strategies for creating for-profit arms that increase revenues to a church. 

As time passes, our culture seems to become more hostile, and it has made it difficult for Christians to operate their businesses in a manner consistent with their disciplines of faith.

Perhaps this is a reason you have been hesitant to start a for-profit arm for your church or ministry. I do not blame you for wanting to “play it safe.” However, God did not call us to “play it safe.”

Rather, God has called us to be the head and not the tail.

I also want to remind you that precedent has been established by the United States Supreme Court (see Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc.*) when it ruled that closely held for-profit corporations have the same religious protections as churches and religious nonprofits.

When we help churches and ministries start for-profit arms, we include strategic language in their foundational documents that make the for-profit arms closely held to the churches and ministries that own them.

While we wait to see how the United States Supreme Court will rule in the case involving Masterpiece Cakeshop, we must not let ourselves as followers of Christ and His Church become docile. Rather, we must remember and heed the word of the Apostle Paul in 2 Timothy 2:17, “For God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power and of love and of a sound mind.”

If you would like more information on how you can start a for-profit arm, please give us a call at 877-494-4655, or check out the link below.

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Handpicked articles for you:


  • Masterpiece Cakeshop, Inc. v. Colo. Civil Rights Comm'n, No. 15SC738, 2016 Colo. LEXIS 429 (Apr. 25, 2016)
  • Masterpiece Cakeshop, Ltd. v. Colo. Civil Rights Comm'n, No. 16-111, 2017 U.S. LEXIS 4226 (June 26, 2017)
  • Lexington Fayette Urban Cty. Human Rights Comm'n v. Hands on Originals, Inc., No. 2015-CA-000745-MR, 2017 Ky. App. Unpub. LEXIS 371 (Ct. App. May 12, 2017)
  • Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc., 134 S. Ct. 2751 (2014)

Please feel free to comment. We always appreciate good dialogue. However, we do moderate each comment to ensure that it is on topic and not derogatory to other participants. We ask that you keep your comments brief and pertinent to the topic so that others may benefit.

Raul Rivera

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