Washington Supreme Court Says There’s No Constitutional Right To Discriminate Against Same-Sex Couples

Today, the Supreme Court of the state of Washington issued an important ruling, unanimously holding that a business can’t ignore the state anti-discrimination law and refuse to provide flowers for a same-sex couple’s wedding.

The case, State of Washington v. Arlene’s Flowers, began in 2013, when two men, Robert Ingersoll and Curt Freed, sought to purchase flowers for their then-upcoming wedding. The men approached Arlene's Flowers and Gifts in Richland, their favorite flower shop where they’d gone for years, but shop owner Barronelle Stutzman  refused to sell to them, contending that doing so would violate her religious beliefs.

That’s when officials with Washington state stepped in, informing Stutzman that discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation violated the state’s anti-discrimination laws and asking her to agree not to discriminate in the future. She refused, and the state – and the two men – filed suit.

Washington state law requires shops like florists to serve all people equally.

Religious freedom is a fundamental American value. It guarantees us the freedom to believe, or not, as we see fit. It does not, however, grant us a right to use religion as an excuse to ignore laws that prohibit discrimination.

After losing in the trial court, Stutzman, who was defended by Alliance Defending Freedom, a large Religious Right legal group, took her arguments directly to the Washington Supreme Court. Americans United then weighed in, supporting the state and the couple, and arguing that the First Amendment’s protections for religious freedom and speech gave no right to discriminate.

The Washington Supreme Court has now vindicated AU’s argument. In a lengthy, 9-0 decision, the court first confirms that Stutzman did indeed violate the Washington Law Against Discrimination; it then goes on to reject her claims that the Constitution gives her a right to break the law.

Stutzman’s main argument was that her flower arrangements were “expressive conduct” – speech, in First Amendment terms – and that she shouldn’t have to communicate a message with her flowers that she doesn’t believe in. But the court rightly rejected this argument, ruling that providing “flowers for a wedding does not inherently express a message about that wedding.”

The florist also proposed that what she called “artistic” services (like hers) be exempted from the anti-discrimination law. The court quickly dismissed this bad idea, quoting from AU’s brief: Such an arrangement, the court noted, would create an unworkable “two-tiered system” where a “dime-store lunch counter would be required to serve interracial couples but an upscale bistro could turn them away.”

And just like her other claims, the court dismissed the argument that Stutzman has a religious-freedom right to discriminate. Shopkeepers are free to hold whatever religious beliefs they like, but they’re not free to discriminate against their customers.

In the end, the court’s conclusion was simple: “Discrimination based on same-sex marriage constitutes discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.” And the enforcement of the anti-discrimination law “does not infringe any constitutional protection.”

Though Ingersoll and Freed have already wed, future Washington couples now won’t have to fear being refused service based on whom they love.

Stutzman was not the first business owner to seek to discriminate in the name of religion, and she surely won’t be the last. But wherever this constitutionally groundless argument is made, Americans United will be there to stand up for every person’s right to be treated equally.