By David Gutman
Washington's court system did not act with religious animus when it ruled that a Richland florist broke the state's anti-discrimination law by refusing to sell flowers for a same-sex wedding, a unanimous Washington Supreme Court said on Thursday.
The state Supreme Court reaffirmed a ruling it made in 2017, after the U.S. Supreme Court sent the case back to Washington to determine whether it had been handled with "religious neutrality," as guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution.
The U.S. Supreme Court had ruled in favor of a Colorado bakery that refused to provide a wedding cake for a same-sex couple. But it was a narrow ruling, justified on the grounds that the Colorado agency that sanctioned the bakery had "some elements of a clear and impermissible hostility" toward the sincere religious beliefs of the bakery owner.
The state Supreme Court said that was not the case here in Washington.
"We are confident that the courts resolved this dispute with tolerance," Justice Sheryl Gordon McCloud wrote in the unanimous opinion. "The state of Washington bars discrimination in public accommodations on the basis of sexual orientation. Discrimination based on same-sex marriage constitutes discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation."
The case began in 2013, when Barronelle Stutzman, the owner of Arlene's Flowers in Richland, refused to provide flowers for the same-sex wedding of Rob Ingersoll and Curt Freed.
State Attorney General Bob Ferguson filed a consumer-protection lawsuit against the florist for refusing to serve the couple, alleging that Stutzman was violating Washington's law against discrimination.
"Washington state law protects same-sex couples from discrimination based on their sexual orientation, the same way it protects Washingtonians from discrimination based on their religion, veteran or military status, disability, race and other protected classes," Ferguson said Thursday.
Stutzman has been represented by the Alliance Defending Freedom, a national Christian nonprofit.
The group said Thursday that Stutzman would again appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court and was soliciting donations for the case on the homepage of its website.
"Barronelle serves all customers; she simply declines to celebrate or participate in sacred events that violate her deeply held beliefs," said John Bursch, vice president of appellate advocacy for the group. "Despite that, the state of Washington has been openly hostile toward Barronelle's religious beliefs about marriage, and now the Washington Supreme Court has given the state a pass."
Stutzman had argued that forcing her to provide flowers for a same-sex wedding violated her religious beliefs and was tantamount to "compelled speech" because it forced her to endorse same-sex marriage.
The state Supreme Court, for the second time on Thursday, disagreed. The court ruled that selling wedding floral arrangements was not speech, but conduct, and thus not protected under the First Amendment.
"The decision to either provide or refuse to provide flowers for a wedding does not inherently express a message about that wedding," the court ruled. "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 also argued that since other florists were willing to provide flowers to the wedding, there was no real harm caused by her refusal to serve Ingersoll and Freed.
"We emphatically reject this argument," the court wrote. "Public accommodation 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."
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