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Grant Strobl and Jacob Chludzinski are young conservative activists who’ve earned their political chops while students at the University of Michigan. They now want to share their experience and promote their point of view with a new business, ThinkRight Strategies, they started in Ann Arbor.

As the name suggests, they aim to help right-leaning candidates and groups craft their messaging, from website design to speechwriting. 

The rub is that the city of Ann Arbor has an anti-discrimination law that forbids businesses from discriminating based on political beliefs, among myriad other factors. In other words, if they want to court conservative clients, they have to recruit liberal business as well. 

While the city hasn’t yet cracked down on ThinkRight, the owners are wary of the possibility and are taking the proactive step of suing the city in federal court

Strobl, who graduated from UM in 2018, and Chludzinski are right to be concerned. These laws prohibiting discrimination are too frequently the cause of discrimination — most often against business owners who hold religious or political beliefs that conflict with politically correct social norms. 

The Alliance Defending Freedom, a nonprofit law firm that seeks to uphold religious liberty, has taken on the case. The law firm is also representing the Tennes family, which owns Country Mill Orchard and Cider Mill in Charlotte. The city of East Lansing in 2017 blocked the owners from selling apples at the city’s farmer’s market because the Catholic orchard owners don’t open their farm to same-sex weddings, in violation of the East Lansing’s anti-discrimination ordinance. 

More: Jacques: Farmer gets boot for expressing his beliefs

Samuel Green, legal counsel with ADF, says the law firm took an interest in the Ann Arbor case because of the clear First Amendment implications, calling it a “pre-enforcement" lawsuit. 

“We found out this law was threatening them to express views contrary to their own,” says Green. “We are hopeful for a victory that will protect all people.

Strobl, who is national chairman of Young Americans for Freedom, is no stranger to policies that target conservatives. While a student at UM, he challenged the university’s free speech restrictions, safe spaces and bias response team. And he also helped the school change course after it canceled a showing of “American Sniper” because some students claimed to be offended by the movie. 

His background translates well into the work he and his partner hope to accomplish through ThinkRight. 

“My experience on campus gives me a unique advantage,” Strobl says. 

Green says that under the Ann Arbor ordinance, to avoid discrimination charges ThinkRight could be compelled to take on clients the owners may fundamentally disagree with — meaning they’d have to put messaging together that could violate their political and religious beliefs. Green calls this coercion, labeling it “un-American” and “unconstitutional.” Penalties for violating the law could reach $500 a day. 

Something important to consider is that such laws don’t just have the possibility of impacting those with conservative views — they could just as easily be used to force a liberal consulting firm’s owners to write speeches for a Republican they loathe. 

As the lawsuit spells out: “Under the guise of stopping discrimination, Ann Arbor passed a law that forces Democrats to create advocacy material supporting conservatives and Republicans to create advocacy material supporting liberals. ... Citizens should be free to choose for themselves what they say and what they celebrate — not the government.”

ijacques@detroitnews.com 

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