OLYMPIA – A Richland florist did not face religious intolerance from government officials who ruled she couldn’t refuse to provide flowers for the wedding of a gay couple, the Washington Supreme Court said Thursday.
In a unanimous 75-page decision, the court upheld for a second time a finding that Barronelle Stutzman of Arlene’s Flowers violated state anti-discrimination laws by refusing to provide floral arrangements for the wedding of Robert Ingersoll and Curt Freed, saying it was against her religious beliefs.
The court had previously ruled against Stutzman, but a U.S. Supreme Court decision in favor of a Colorado bakery that refused to provide a cake for a same-sex wedding sent the case back to the Washington high court to determine whether government officials at some point in the process showed intolerance for the florist’s religious beliefs. That led to a new round of legal arguments and a new review of the case.
“We now hold that the answer to the Supreme Court’s question is no: the adjudicatory bodies that considered this case did not act with religious animus when they ruled that the florist and her corporation violated the Washington Law Against Discrimination … by declining to sell wedding flowers to a gay couple,” the opinion, written by Justice Sheryl McCloud, said.
The case began in 2013, just months after voters had approved the state’s same-sex marriage law and when Ingersoll and Freed, who had been together since 2004, were planning a wedding. Ingersoll went to Stutzman’s shop, where he was a regular customer, to discuss flowers for the wedding.
Stutzman, who is a member of the Southern Baptist church and has what the court described as a sincerely held religious belief that marriage can only exist between one man and one woman, said she would not be able to do flowers for wedding because of that belief and “her relationship with Jesus Christ.”
It was the first, and so far only, same-sex wedding for which she had been asked to provide arrangements. She said she would sell Ingersoll flowers for the wedding, but not a custom floral arrangement because she viewed that as participating in the wedding and endorsing marriage equality for same-sex couples. Floral arrangements use her imagination and artistic skill, and should be protected by her First Amendment rights of freedom of expression as well as freedom of religion.
Freed later wrote a Facebook post about the refusal, without naming the shop but mentioning the street where it was located. After it was circulated on Facebook, it drew the attention of news media. The couple later changed their wedding plans and Stutzman received some threats to her business.
Eventually, Attorney General Bob Ferguson sent Stutzman a letter, asking her to sign an agreement to stop discriminating against customers based on their sexual orientation. She refused. Ferguson filed a complaint under the state’s consumer protection and anti-discrimination statutes, and the couple filed a separate lawsuit. A Benton County Superior Court judge combined the cases and reviewed the arguments, eventually issuing an injunction against Stutzman requested by Ferguson and awarding damages to the couple.
The Washington Supreme Court upheld both decisions, and Stutzman appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. But before it could be argued there, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of a Colorado baker who refused to create a cake for a same-sex wedding, saying that during the process of deciding whether he was violating that state’s anti-discrimination laws, a member of the Civil Rights Commission made disparaging remarks about the baker’s religion.
The U.S. Supreme Court sent the Arlene’s Flowers case back to the Washington Supreme Court to reconsider it in light of the Masterpiece Cakeshop decision.
Attorneys for Stutzman argued the cases were the same, contending Ferguson was showing animus toward religion by taking action against Arlene’s Flowers but not against a Seattle coffee shop that refused to serve Christians.
But McCloud wrote there is key distinction between the two cases because the Colorado case involved religious intolerance from an adjudicatory body. The only two such bodies – the trial court and the state Supreme Court – showed no such intolerance. The attorney general’s office isn’t an adjudicatory body and the coffee shop case is irrelevant, she wrote.
The court also rejected Stutzman’s arguments that applying the state’s anti-discrimination laws to her refusal to provide floral arrangements for a same-sex wedding violates her constitutional rights.
“Discrimination based on same sex-marriage constitutes discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation,” McCloud wrote. Enforcing the anti-discrimination law in this case does not violate her rights of artistic expression because it doesn’t fit with previous cases that protect that right. Allowing such an exemption would create a two-tiered system system the law, similar to saying a dime-store lunch counter would have to serve an interracial couple but an upscale bistro wouldn’t, she wrote, quoting from a friend of the court brief.
Stutzman can still freely practice her religion, McCloud wrote. She was never asked to attend the wedding ceremony. She has provided floral arrangements for weddings of Muslims and atheists, and wasn’t endorsing Islam or atheism by doing that.
“After careful review on remand, we are confident that the courts resolved this dispute with tolerance, and we therefore find no reason to change our original judgment,” the court concluded.
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