Some people—activists, speakers, and so on—make you think, “That’s so impressive … I am glad they are on our team, but I could never do that.”
Others make you think, “I want to be more like them.”
At the Colson Center, we particularly value the second kind of person. As teachers, we want to inspire people to learn and grow and become more the people God calls them to be—not just impress them with how clever we are.
And as members of Christ’s Church, we believe true heroes are often those who want nothing more than to live what George Eliot called “a hidden life”—faithfully serving God and loving others in the sphere in which God has placed them.
But sometimes, God’s plan for us costs us greatly. Sometimes life becomes a fight, the spotlight turns on us and our convictions, and faithfulness is doing the next thing in faith and obedience. In those moments, God is writing a future that we can’t even imagine.
Chuck Colson established the William Wilberforce Award in 1988 to annually recognize a Christian leader who exemplifies the principles and commitment of William Wilberforce, the great English statesman who waged a 40-year campaign to end the slave trade in Britain and reform a broken society. We continue to honor Christian leaders who, by their example, encourage all Christians to make a difference in the face of tough societal problems and injustices.
This year, for the first time, the William Wilberforce Award was co-awarded: to Jack Phillips and Barronelle Stutzman. Their faithful courage can inspire us all to live more like Christ, even when it costs us dearly.
Jack Phillips, owner of Masterpiece Cakeshop in Colorado, doesn’t just bake cakes: he is a cake artist who masterfully creates beautifully decorated custom cakes for a variety of occasions. However, as a Christian, his faith has also led him to reject certain kinds of business, including cakes for Halloween parties, divorce celebrations, or crude bachelor or bachelorette parties.
In 2012, when two men asked Jack to create a custom cake for their wedding celebration, Jack instead offered them any other product in the store but said that due to his religious convictions, he could not participate in their wedding celebration by designing a custom cake. The couple left fuming, Jack began getting death threats, and the Colorado Civil Rights Commission not only fined Jack but also ordered him to make cakes for same-sex couples. Jack appealed the decision, and his case eventually made it all the way to the Supreme Court. Throughout the process, Jack lost over 40% of his business and had to lay off numerous employees.
Barronelle Stutzman has a similar tale. As the owner of Arlene’s Flowers in Washington state, her floral arrangements were often custom designed and served as an art form, a way that she could glorify God through her talents and vocation. When a long-time customer whom she considered a friend asked her to create a floral arrangement for his same-sex wedding, Barronelle declined, explaining that her Christian belief that marriage is the union of one man and one woman prevented her from “using her artistic talents to promote contrary ideas about marriage.” She referred him to three other floral artists whom she trusted and knew would provide him with quality work in her stead.
The couple filed suit against Barronelle and was joined by the state of Washington. Her case quickly made it to the state Supreme Court.
Both Jack Phillips and Barronelle Stutzman courageously stood for their convictions in the face of immense trial and persecution that stretched over a number of years while the court cases were considered. Jack’s case concluded favorably, with the Supreme Court ruling 7-2 in his favor, writing that “the Colorado Civil Rights Commission’s consideration of this case was inconsistent with the State’s obligation of religious neutrality.” However, Barronelle did not receive the vindication due her from the courts. Not only did the Washington Supreme Court rule against her, but when Barronelle appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court afterward, it declined to hear her case. Barronelle settled in late 2021 and was able to retire with a clear conscience, passing the legal torch to the artists coming after her who will undoubtedly face similar trials.
It’s impossible to know how many business owners, artists, and others have found the courage of their convictions by watching Barronelle and Jack. Their sagas have made it clear to the rest of us that this kind of thing can really happen in the United States, and to say that religious liberty is under threat in this country cannot be dismissed as hyperbolic fearmongering. But Christians must live as though they know how the story ends—and we are indebted to these two artists for their courageous examples.
PICTURED: 2022 WILBERFORCE AWARD RECIPIENTS, JACK PHILLIPS AND BARRONELLE STUTZMAN
“I just pray that God gives us the strength and the obedience to stand strong. Pray for our churches, and that our churches would begin to rise up and realize that we need to be obedient to Christ’s Word.”
- Barronelle Stutzman, on the Strong Women podcast
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