Free Speech, Religious Freedom & a Dane County Court

Free Speech, Religious Freedom & a Dane County Court

2017 | Week of August 28 | #1218

On Tuesday, August 1, about 1:30, I made my way to the Dane County Courthouse, took the elevator to the 5th floor and found Judge Richard Niess’s courtroom. I was apprehensive. I was there to observe oral arguments in a case that we had had something to do with.

As I sat outside the court room waiting for the current case to be called at 2 p.m., my mind raced back to a decade before when I had sat in Judge Niess’s courtroom listening to arguments about why Wisconsin’s marriage amendment was unconstitutional. I recalled with enthusiasm that Judge Niess sided with us on that case. That recollection resulted in some easing of the current tension.

At 2 we entered the court room, the lawyers took their places, most of the visitors’ seats were full. We all rose as the Honorable Judge Niess took his place, and I settled back for what I assumed would be at least a couple of hours.

The next thing I knew, we were out of the court room; I looked at my watch. It was 2:40. What just happened in there, I said, to no one in particular and everyone in general. To put it mildly what I witnessed in that 40 minutes was stunning.

A year ago this past spring, I received an email from Amy Lawson, a young Christian photographer and blogger living in Madison. I’ve known her husband a long time, and I’m sure he suggested she contact me. Amy had become uneasy, and for good reason, with publicly indicating that she did not provide photography services for same-sex weddings. She wanted to know what legal protections she might have in making that statement regarding her home-based and Internet-based company, Amy Lynn Photography Studio. I immediately referred her to our national legal allies, Alliance Defending Freedom, who stepped in to represent Amy and her Studio.

Ultimately, Amy and her business brought what is known as a “pre-enforcement” challenge against the City of Madison and the State of Wisconsin, alleging that the city’s public accommodations ordinance and the state’s public accommodations law prohibited her from using her creative talents and skills in ways consistent with her conscience and religious beliefs. In fact, she alleged that the Madison ordinance actually forced her to use her professional creativity to support activities she doesn’t believe are right, such as same-sex weddings and abortion.

And that’s how I happened to be in that court room earlier this month. After about 35 minutes of discussion with the judge to make sure all parties understood what each was seeking, Judge Niess had determined what he wanted to do. He said to both the city’s attorneys and the state’s attorneys, both of whom had asked the court to dismiss the case, that as far as he could tell both the city and the state believed that Amy and Amy Lynn Photography Studio, as a home-based and internet-based enterprise, did not run afoul of either the city’s ordinance or the state’s law. That was a harder pill for the Madison attorneys to swallow than for the state’s attorneys, to be sure.

I left the court room almost shell-shocked at the brevity and the outcome. This was a considerable victory for free speech and religious freedom—not in Georgia or Texas or even in Waukesha, Wisconsin—but right in the heart of one of the most liberal cities, not just in our state, but in the entire country. It’s fair to say I was rejoicing and giving thanks for God’s goodness in many ways.

In the last couple of weeks, Judge Niess made good on his decision and issued two orders that make it very clear that Amy and her photography studio are not considered places of public accommodation for purposes of Madison’s ordinance or Wisconsin’s law.

It’s important to note that this case was not about a business that operates with a store-front. What’s unique here is that this is a home-operated business with an Internet component. That said, we now have case law—from a Madison court—that says Wisconsin individuals, including Madison residents, who operate businesses in the way that Amy Lawson operates hers, will not be forced to violate their conscience or their religious beliefs in their professional work. I’ll take that any day from any court—and that it happened in 40 minutes in a Dane County Court makes it just that much more special.

For Wisconsin Family Council, I’m Julaine Appling, reminding you the prophet Hosea said, “My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge.

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