It might surprise some to learn that the guy credited with uttering the most famous motto in defense of free speech actually did not say it.
“I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it,” the 18th-century French philosopher Voltaire supposedly said. Rather, Evelyn Beatrice Hall, an English author, penned those words in her biography of Voltaire 125 years after her subject died.
That notwithstanding, Voltaire was a pivotal Enlightenment thinker who, despite becoming a favorite of so many dreadful Marxists, applied a similar logic to other civil liberties. Religion, for instance. Voltaire habitually and viciously quarreled with the Catholic Church, the Church of England and organized religion in general. Still, he saw the benefits of religious life, and supported the idea of people freely exercising their religious faith, whatever that may be.
We could use a dose of Voltaire today, because that’s something increasingly being chipped away in our own country.
Last week the Kentucky Supreme Court heard a case involving Blaine Adamson, a T-shirt shop proprietor who refused to print custom apparel for the 2012 Gay Pride Festival in Lexington. Adamson, a Christian, declined to do so, saying making the shirts would conflict with his religious beliefs. According to Kentucky.com, the design featured the phrase “Lexington Pride Festival” augmented by a large “5” in rainbow-colored dots. The number signified that it was the fifth annual parade.
The parade organizers hauled Adamson before the city’s Human Rights Commission. They alleged he refused their service because they were homosexual, which was discriminatory under a city ordinance. The board agreed, and ordered Adamson to attend diversity training.
So in other words the commission charged with protecting human rights found that Adamson’s constitutionally granted religious freedom did not matter and sent him to a re-education camp.
Yet Adamson appealed. And he has prevailed in both trial and appellate courts. Still, the outcome is not decided, as the case lingers before Kentucky’s Supreme Court.
We’ve seen this movie before over the past few years. In Colorado, baker Jack Phillips went to the U.S. Supreme Court for refusing to make a custom nuptial cake for a same-sex wedding on religious grounds. In Washington state, florist Baronelle Stutzman went to her state’s high court after resisting assembling a customized floral arrangement for a same-sex wedding. In New Mexico, photographer Elaine Hugenin also turned down a same-sex wedding and wound up before the U.S. Supreme Court.
The courts have provided mixed results in these cases, suggesting it’s time for a broad, decisive Supreme Court ruling on First Amendment religious protections in these situations.
In a perfectly functioning liberal democracy served by a robust capitalist system, these issues would be easily resolved, without litigation. Those aggrieved in such cases would simply shun these shopkeepers in favor of others who are friendly, or at least indifferent, to their cause and welcoming of their money. Thus, they would punish them with lost profits and, undoubtedly in certain circles, social ostracization.
After all, Lexington has had seven pride festivals since Adamson declined the job. Who made those shirts, or supplied other items for the parades?
But we don’t have a perfectly functioning liberal democracy served by a robust capitalist system. Instead we have brigades of ultrawoke activists and accommodating lawyers who let little pass unlitigated, and for whom “live and let live” is an anachronistic philosophy.
Contra Voltaire, they disapprove of what you say, and will fight to the death to make sure you cannot say it again.
But this idea of bringing artistic business owners to heel conjures a baffling irony.
The same “cancel culture” folks who likely support the pride parade organizers against Adamson also cheer excommunicating pro-Trump folks on political or free association grounds -- such as boycotting billionaire Stephen Ross’s fitness franchises, doxxing mom-and-pop business owners in San Antonio, kicking Sarah Huckabee Sanders out of a restaurant, or denying Second Amendment activist Kyle Kashuv admission to Harvard.
Adamson’s case, like those in Colorado, Washington, New Mexico and elsewhere, involves an issue that transcends mere earthly politics. To protect Adamson’s right of religious freedom, Kentucky’s high court should uphold the lower courts’ rulings. What will become of America if we force people like Adamson to renege on what they hold most sacred in submission to a political culture that lords over them with utter contempt?
Bill Thompson (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the editorial page editor of The Ledger in Lakeland, Florida.