Florist Broke Law When Refusing Service to Gay Couple, Rules Washington Supreme Court

by | February 17, 2017

By Lynn Thompson

A Richland, Wash., florist who refused to provide flowers to a gay couple for their wedding violated anti-discrimination law, the state Supreme Court ruled Thursday.

The court ruled unanimously that Barronelle Stutzman discriminated against longtime customers Rob Ingersoll and Curt Freed when she refused to do the flowers for their 2013 wedding because of her religious opposition to same-sex marriage. Instead, Stutzman suggested several other florists in the area who would help them.

"We're thrilled that the Washington Supreme Court has ruled in our favor. The court affirmed that we are on the right side of the law and the right side of history,"Ingersoll and Freed said in a statement.

Stutzman and her attorneys said they would appeal the decision to the U.S. Supreme Court. They also held out hope that President Donald Trump would issue an executive order protecting religious freedom, which was a campaign pledge.

Stutzman called the ruling "terrifying when you think the government is coming in and telling you what to think and what to do."

In its decision, the state's highest court rejected Stutzman's claims that since other florists in the area were willing to provide flowers, no harm resulted from her refusal.

Writing for the court majority, Justice Sheryl Gordon McCloud said, "We emphatically reject this argument. We agree with Ingersoll and Freed that 'this case is no more about access to flowers than civil rights cases were about access to sandwiches.' ... As every other court to address the question has concluded, public accommodations laws do not simply guarantee access to goods or services. Instead, they serve a broader societal purpose: eradicating barriers to the equal treatment of all citizens in the commercial marketplace."

The court also rejected Stutzman's claims that her floral arrangements were a form of artistic expression and so protected by the First Amendment. Citing the case of a New Mexico photographer who similarly refused to take pictures at a gay marriage, the court said, "while photography may be expressive, the operation of a photography business is not."

In December 2012, soon after the state legalized gay marriage, Ingersoll and Freed began planning a large wedding. Stutzman, who had provided flowers to the couple numerous times over the years, refused, citing her religious belief that marriage is a sacred covenant between a man and a woman.

The couple went ahead with their wedding, but they had it at home with 11 guests and flowers from another florist, instead of the larger event they had envisioned.

The couple, state Attorney General Bob Ferguson and the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington sued Stutzman under the state's anti-discrimination and consumer-protection laws in what became a high-profile case that highlighted the clash between the right to be treated equally under the law and the free exercise of religion and speech.

A Benton County Superior Court judge last February ruled that Stutzman's religious beliefs did not allow her to discriminate against the couple and that she must provide flowers for same-sex weddings, or stop doing weddings at all. Thursday's state Supreme Court ruling upheld the lower court.

Ferguson on Thursday hailed the decision, saying, "It is a complete, unequivocal victory for equality in the state of Washington and sends a clear message around the country as well."

Speaking with Ferguson at a news conference in Seattle, Michael Scott, the ACLU attorney for the same-sex couple, said the decision recognizes "human beings and their lives" while upholding the "core value of American law" regarding human dignity.

The Alliance Defending Freedom, which represents Stutzman, said that she will ask the U.S. Supreme Court to review Thursday's ruling.

Stutzman acted consistently with her faith, an Alliance news release said, but state justices "concluded that the government can force her _ and, by extension, other Washingtonians _ to create artistic expression and participate in events with which they disagree."

In November, the state Supreme Court heard arguments in the case, Ingersoll v. Arlene's Flowers, during a special session at Bellevue College.

Attorneys for Stutzman argued that a floral arrangement is a form of speech deserving of protection and that government cannot compel Stutzman to create an arrangement for a gay couple against her religious beliefs.

Ferguson urged the court to uphold state anti-discrimination laws and not to create an exception for religious beliefs. He noted that many people once held strong religious beliefs against interracial marriage, but the courts struck down those laws as discriminatory.

Stutzman and her attorneys argued that the Benton County Superior Court's ruling was unlawful government coercion and that the creative expression of floral arrangement deserves the same protection as free speech.

During the November hearing, several justices expressed skepticism for that argument, asking why it wouldn't also extend to bartenders, stationery providers or landscape artists who also bring creativity to their work.

"So anyone worried about their expression may deny services to a customer?" asked Justice Steven Gonzales.

The case attracted more than a dozen friend-of-court briefs on behalf of the gay couple, including the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund and a group of Washington businesses that include Amazon, Microsoft and the Metropolitan Seattle Chamber of Commerce.

Amicus briefs were filed on behalf of Stutzman and Arlene's Flowers, including one from African-American and Hispanic churches and their pastors who argued that the government should not penalize people for the belief that marriage is a union between a husband and wife.

(Seattle Times staff reporter Steve Miletich contributed to this story, which includes information from Times archives.)

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