Feb 16, 2017

Americans United for Separation of Church and State applauds today’s Washington State Supreme Court ruling that a florist cannot cite religious beliefs as justification for discriminating against same-sex couples.

The case, State of Washington v. Arlene’s Flowers Inc., was brought by two men – one of them a repeat customer of Arlene’s – who had asked the Richland florist to provide flowers for their wedding. Owner Barronelle Stutzman refused, claiming doing so would be expressing support for marriage of same-sex couples, in conflict with her religious beliefs and free speech rights.

The Benton County Superior Court in February 2015 rejected the florist’s argument, and she appealed to the state supreme court. Americans United filed a friend-of-the-court brief in the case, arguing that Arlene’s Flowers had no right to discriminate.

“Supporters of Arlene’s Flowers say they want religious freedom, but what they really seek is the right to use their religion to humiliate others and treat them like second-class citizens,” said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United. “That’s not religious freedom; it’s just plain, old-fashioned bigotry. The Washington Supreme Court was right to shut it down.”

As Americans United explained in its brief, the argument used by Arlene’s Flowers could have allowed others to justify discrimination through denial of services in virtually any context. It “would also allow nearly any business to discriminate as it pleases simply by contending that its provision of goods or services is expressive. Gay men, lesbians, and members of other protected classes (and their children) would not know which businesses they could patronize and could not expect the law to protect their rights of access to public accommodations.”

The state high court quotes favorably from AU’s brief on page 33 of its decision. The passage rejects an argument put forth by Stutzman that her business should be exempt from a Washington law that bars discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation because she engages in artistry and creative expression.

The court noted, “But, as amicus Americans United for Separation of Church and State points out, Stutzman's rule would create a ‘two-tiered system’ that carves out an enormous hole from public accommodations laws: under such a system, a ‘dime-store lunch counter would be required to serve interracial couples but an upscale bistro could turn them away.’"

Americans United’s involvement in the case was part of its Protect Thy Neighbor project, which seeks to stop religion-based discrimination against LGBTQ people and others.

The brief was written by Americans United Legal Director Richard B. Katskee, Legal Fellow Carmen N. Green and Gregory M. Lipper, who was AU’s senior litigation counsel at the time.