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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Supreme Court declines to hear case of Richland florist who refused same-sex wedding job

The U.S. Supreme Court on Friday denied a request to hear a case from a Washington state florist who refused to serve a same-sex couple for their wedding, leaving in place a previous decision that she violated the state’s anti-discrimination laws.

Three justices – Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito and Neil Gorsuch – said they would hear the case, but four are needed to bring a case to the Court.

Washington State Attorney General Bob Ferguson called it a “historic victory for equality.”

“Discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation is not only wrong – it’s unlawful,” Ferguson said in a statement.

In 2013, Robert Ingersoll tried to purchase flowers for his upcoming wedding to Curt Freed from Arlene’s Flowers in Richland. Owner Barronelle Stutzman refused, as she said the wedding went against her religious beliefs.

Stutzman, a member of the Southern Baptist church, had served Ingersoll for nearly 10 years, but she could not “take part in or create custom art that celebrates sacred ceremonies that violate her faith,” according to court documents.

Ingersoll said in a statement after they were denied flowers, he and Freed canceled plans for their “dream wedding” because they were afraid they would be turned down again. Instead, they had a small wedding at home, Ingersoll said.

The Washington Attorney General’s Office then filed a consumer protection lawsuit against Stutzman and the shop. The case made it to the state Supreme Court, which ruled in 2017 that “the state bars discrimination in public accommodations on the basis of sexual orientation.”

Stutzman appealed the decision to the U.S. Supreme Court.

In 2018, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of a bakery in Colorado that refused to make a wedding cake for a same-sex couple, saying the state civil rights commission had “some elements of a clear and impermissible hostility” toward the religious beliefs of the business owner.

As the Washington florist case was similar to the Colorado case, the court sent the Washington case back to the state Supreme Court for an additional look to determine whether that case affected its ruling.

The Washington State Supreme Court upheld its previous decision as there was no evidence of hostility in the handling of the case, according to court documents. The court again ruled Arlene’s Flowers had violated the state’s Consumer Protection Act and discrimination laws when it refused to serve a same-sex couple flowers for their wedding in 2013.

The state’s anti-discrimination law does not violate her right to religious free exercise under the First Amendment because “it is a neutral, generally applicable law that serves our state government’s compelling interest in eradicating discrimination in public accommodations,” Justice Sheryl Gordon McCloud wrote in the decision.

Kristen Waggoner, general counsel for Alliance Defending Freedom that represented Stutzman, called the outcome “tragic.” No one should be forced to celebrate an event they disagree with, Waggoner continued.

“A government that can crush someone like Barronelle, who kindly served her gay customer for nearly a decade but simply declined to create art celebrating one sacred ceremony, can use its power to crush any of us regardless of our political ideology or views on important issues like marriage,” she said in a statement.

Ferguson said the decision sends a message to the entire country that everyone, regardless of sexual orientation, should be treated equally under the law.

Ria Tabacco Mar, American Civil Liberties Union attorney representing Ingersoll and Freed, said the court confirmed that LGBTQ people should receive equal service, and no one should walk into a store and have to wonder if they’ll be “turned away because of who they are.”

“We hope this decision sends a message to other LGBTQ people that no one should have to experience the hurt that we did,” Ingersoll said in a statement.

Laurel Demkovich's reporting for The Spokesman-Review is funded in part by Report for America and by members of the Spokane community. This story can be republished by other organizations for free under a Creative Commons license. For more information on this, please contact our newspaper’s managing editor.