A Washington state judge has ruled that florist Barronelle Stutzman, owner of Arlene’s Flowers, broke state law when she refused to provide flowers for the wedding of Robert Ingersoll and Curt Freed. Stutzman, represented by anti-LGBT legal juggernaut the Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), had been sued by the same-sex couple and the state’s attorney general for breaking both the Washington Law Against Discrimination and the state’s Consumer Protection Act. She countersued, seeking the right to engage in such discrimination based on her religious beliefs.
Though Stutzman has become a darling of the religious right for asserting her Southern Baptist beliefs about same-sex marriage, her arguments about religious freedom fell flat in court. Benton County Superior Court Judge Alex Ekstrom concluded in his decision that “to accept any [of] the Defendants’ arguments would be to disregard well-settled law.”
In fact, the case was rather open-and-shut. On March 1, 2013, “Stutzman refused to provide to Ingersoll a service she provided to others,” Ekstrom wrote. What she believes about same-sex marriage is immaterial, because the law’s protections against discrimination based on sexual orientation “address conduct, not beliefs.” Agreeing with the plaintiffs and the attorney general, Ekstrom asserted that “no Court has ever held that religiously motivated conduct, expressive or otherwise, trumps state discrimination law in public accommodations.” He also pointed out that Stutzman is not a minister nor is Arlene’s Flowers a religious organization. Likewise, the law does not specifically target her because of her beliefs, but is “neutral and generally applicable” to all people of all beliefs.
Ekstrom agreed that “the State’s compelling interest in combating discrimination in public accommodations is well settled” and is not superseded by an individual’s religious beliefs. As the Supreme Court wrote in the 1982 case United States v. Lee, “When followers of a particular sect enter into commercial activity as a matter of choice, the limits they accept on their own conduct as a matter of conscience and faith are not to be superimposed on the statutory schemes which are binding on others in that activity. Granting an exemption… operates to impose [the follower’s] religious faith on the [person sought to be protected by the law.]”
ADF argued in the case, as it continues to argue in the wake of the ruling, that Stutzman’s religious beliefs should be catered to so long as Ingersoll and Freed could still find flowers elsewhere. ADF Senior Counsel Kristen Waggoner explained in a press release, “The two men had no problem getting the flowers they wanted. They received several offers for free flowers, and the marketplace gives them plenty of options.” Ekstrom pointed out that a rule where discriminating businesses simply refer customers to non-discriminating businesses “would, of course, defeat the purpose of combating discrimination, and would allow discrimination in public accommodations based on all protected classes, including race.” Religious justifications for racial discrimination have certainly been proffered before. “There is no slope, much less a slippery one,” Ekstrom wrote, “where ‘race’ and ‘sexual orientation’ are in the same sentence of the statute, separate by only three terms: ‘creed, color, national origin…’”
Ekstrom also rejected ADF’s arguments that a distinction could be made between the couple’s sexual orientation and the act of getting married. “The United States Supreme Court has long held that discrimination based on conduct associated with a protected characteristic constitutes discrimination on the basis of that characteristic,” he noted, referencing in particular the case Christian Legal Society v. Martinez. In that case, a university student group claimed it wasn’t discriminating against gay members, only against those who engaged in or supported same-sex intimacy. The Supreme Court did not find the distinction compelling.
The non-discrimination law in no way violates any constitutional principles, Ekstrom concluded, because, “For over 135 years, the Supreme Court of the United States has held that laws may prohibit religiously motivated action, as opposed to belief. In trade and commerce, and more particularly when seeking to prevent discrimination in public accommodations, the Courts have confirmed the power of the Legislative Branch to prohibit conduct it deems discriminatory, even when the motivation for that conduct is grounded in religious belief.”
Following the ruling, Stutzman claimed, “The government is coming after me and everything I have just because I won’t live my life the way the state says I should. I just want the freedom to live and work faithfully and according to what God says about marriage without fear of punishment.” Damages and fines in the case have not yet been determined.
The decision follows a near-identical ruling in Oregon last month against a bakery that refused a cake to a same-sex couples. The string of losses in similar cases follows back to an Iowa wedding venue, a Vermont reception venue, a Colorado bakery, and a New Mexico photographer who all similarly tried to refuse services related to a same-sex commitment ceremony. All of those states have laws protecting against discrimination based on sexual orientation, but there are still 29 states that have no such laws.