A high-profile fashion designer who is refusing to design clothes for Melania Trump is fueling conversation surrounding freedom of association and religious liberty in America, with conservatives and libertarians alike decrying the double standard.
In a Nov. 17 letter, designer Sophie Theallet, writing on behalf of her entire brand, said that it has been an honor to dress First Lady Michelle Obama for the past 8 years, but that she would not even associate with Melania Trump.
"As a family owned company, our bottom line is not just about money," she wrote, "We value our artistic freedom."
"As one who celebrates and strives for diversity, individual freedom, and respect for all lifestyles, I will not participate in dressing or associating in any way with the next First Lady. The rhetoric of racism, sexism, and xenophobia, unleashed by her husband's presidential campaign are incompatible with the shared values we live by," she continued.
But that line of reasoning is basically the same as that of Christian bakers and florists when they argue that providing services for same-sex wedding ceremonies violates their consciences and they must therefore decline to participate. Only, unlike the fashion designer, in the cases of such small business owners, state governments have gone after them for refusing.
"We need to keep making this argument, because a lot of people still haven't heard it," said the Heritage Foundation's Ryan Anderson, author of Truth Overruled: The Future of Marriage and Religious Freedom, in a Monday phone interview with The Christian Post.
"One of the important things to do here is to show people how [the Left] wants to be free in their commercial transactions, their professions, their artistic endeavors, for the causes they care about."
"So if [Theallet] doesn't want to be a fashion designer for the First Lady, because [she] disagrees with the message that would send, that that would mean supporting the First Lady and the new president and supporting his policies. They don't want to be sending the message that they support those things. That's very similar to the baker and the florist," he added.
Likewise, Family Research Council President Tony Perkins noted that liberal "tolerance" is a one-way street, writing on Twitter: "I'm fine with designers declining to dress the Trumps. I'm not fine with the double standard, as Christian wedding vendors are prosecuted."
Writing at Reason Saturday, libertarian Stephanie Slade expressed her distaste for the President-elect, saying that if she owned a business she, too, would not serve the incoming administration and articulated her support for rocker Bruce Springsteen who decided to cancel his shows in North Carolina in protest of state laws with which he disagreed.
"Both are examples of associational freedom — the right to make decisions for yourself about how and with whom you spend your time and energy. This includes the right not to take on a client or project that elevates, in your view, a value you disagree with," Slade said.
"[Rights] must also be for those who will take positions you can't fathom for reasons you can't stomach. Free association, and the freedom to live out your convictions expressively in how you make a living, cannot be reserved for rock stars and fashion designers and other powerful liberals, while being denied to regular Americans," she continued.
Anderson believes the policy question comes down to when the presumption of liberty deserves to be trumped by government regulation.
"In general we have said there's a presumption of liberty and we don't need to override it. Racism in the South, and the legacy of slavery and Jim Crow said no. Racism isn't going away. We do need to override that presumption of liberty and so we passed laws against having segregated lunch counters, against racist businesses that refuse simply to serve African-Americans," Anderson said.
"The question today is: Do we need laws like that on sexual orientation and gender identity? Do we need to say that every last baker in the state needs to bake a same-sex wedding cake? Or do we see that already the market is sorting these things out. The vast majority of bakers are more than happy to bake the cake, they are more than happy to make the money. They support gay marriage and in business to make a profit, and if that is the case, is there any reason for the government coercing the one evangelical baker and the one evangelical florist in a community that says they can't do this."
Such touchy cases have risen to the fore in recent years, highlighting the clash between religious freedom and changing cultural norms.
As The Christian Post reported on Nov 16, hundreds in Washington state rallied to support Barronnelle Stutzman, the florist whom the state Attorney General fined for declining to make custom floral arrangements for a same-sex wedding ceremony in 2013. Her case was heard at the Washington State Supreme Court on Nov. 15 and should she lose her attorneys will likely appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.
"When the government can come in and tell you what to do, what to create and what to believe, we do not live in a free America," Stutzman said.