July/August 2019 Church & State Magazine - July/August 2019

Washington Officials Not Hostile To Faith In Florist Case, Says State Top Court

  Rob Boston

Officials in Washington state evidenced no hostility toward religion when they sanctioned a florist for refusing to serve LGBTQ clients, the state’s highest court has unanimously ruled.

In its June 6 ruling, the Washington Supreme Court affirmed a decision it released in 2017 concerning Arlene’s Flowers, a florist in Richland whose owner, Barronelle Stutzman, refused to provide flowers for the wedding of a same-sex couple, Robert Ingersoll and Curt Freed, in 2013.

Stutzman said serving the couple would violate her religious beliefs, but state officials said Stutzman was instead in violation of a state law that protects members of the LGBTQ community from discrimination and fined her. Backed by Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), a Religious Right legal group, Stutzman sued.

Although the state high court ruled against Stutzman two years ago, it was ordered to review the opinion by the U.S. Supreme Court. Ruling in a separate case from Colorado, the U.S. high court found that officials in Colorado had engaged in religious bias against a baker who refused to serve LGBTQ people.

The Washington Supreme Court ruled in a decision last month that there was no evidence of bias in the Stutzman case.

“We are confident that the courts resolved this dispute with tolerance, and we therefore find no reason to change our original judgment,” Justice Sheryl Gordon McCloud wrote.

The court also rejected Stutzman’s contention that arranging flowers is a form of free speech and thus constitutionally protected.

“The decision to either provide or refuse to provide flowers for a wedding does not inherently express a message about that wedding,” observed McCloud. “As Stutzman acknowledged at deposition, providing flowers for a wedding between Muslims would not necessarily constitute an endorsement of Islam, nor would providing flowers for an atheist couple endorse atheism.”

Stutzman’s attorneys at the ADF also suggested that she should qualify for a narrow “artistic” exemption that would allow the owners of certain businesses such as publicists, speechwriters, photographers and artists to engage in discrimination. But the Washington top court was not persuaded. It quoted a legal brief filed by Americans Uni­ted noting that allowing such discrimination would create a two-tiered system that would punch a large loophole in public-accommodation laws.

Attorneys at the ADF said they plan to again appeal the ruling in State of Washington v. Arlene’s Flowers to the U.S. Supreme Court.

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