Washington Supreme Court rules against florist who discriminated against same-sex couple

Barronelle Stutzman broke the law when she insisted she couldn’t provide flowers for a same-sex wedding.

CREDIT: AP Photo/Elaine Thompson
CREDIT: AP Photo/Elaine Thompson

The Washington Supreme Court ruled unanimously Thursday that Barronelle Stutzman, owner of Arlene’s Flowers, violated state nondiscrimination laws when she refused to sell flowers for a same-sex couple’s wedding back in 2013.

When Robert Ingersoll and Curt Freed asked her to provide flowers for their wedding, Stutzman refused, citing her religious beliefs. Both the couple and the state attorney general sued her for violating Washington’s law protecting against discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, and she countersued, seeking the right to engage in such discrimination in the name of “religious freedom.” A lower court had ruled against her and required her to pay a fine of $1,000.

The argument Stutzman offered is that she didn’t discriminate against the couple because of their sexual orientation, but the Court rejected Stutzman’s “proposed distinction between status and conduct fundamentally linked to that status.” Only a person with a same-sex orientation would enter a same-sex wedding, so to refuse such a wedding is to discriminate on the basis of orientation.

The Court also rejected Stutzman’s arguments that the nondiscrimination law infringed on her free speech because flower arrangements are artistic. Flowers are not “inherently expressive,” the Court ruled, because “the decision to either provide or refuse to provide flowers for a wedding does not inherently express a message about that wedding.” Stutzman herself had admitted that providing flowers to a wedding between Muslims would not constitute an endorsement for Islam, nor would flowers for an atheist wedding have endorsed atheism.

Her argument that it violated her religious beliefs fared no better. The law protecting against discrimination does not unfairly target religious beliefs, because it applies equally to all people. And her claim that there were other floral shops willing to serve the couple ignores that such protections serve a broader societal purpose: eradicating barriers to the equal treatment of all citizens in the commercial marketplace. Were the Court to carve out a special exception for her beliefs, “that purpose would be fatally undermined.”

“We agree with Ingersoll and Freed,” the Court wrote, “that ‘this case is no more bout access to flowers than civil rights cases in the 1960s were about access to sandwiches.’”

Stutzman’s case has been a cause celebre for the religious right, and she served as a spokesperson for the “religious freedom” argument proffered to discriminate against LGBT people. The Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), which was designated an anti-LGBT hate group this week by the Southern Poverty Law Center, has represented her in court and issued countless fundraising requests in her name.

Only one other case of anti-gay discrimination has been considered by a state’s highest court. In 2013, the New Mexico Supreme Court ruled unanimously against Elane Photography, also represented by ADF, for refusing to provide photography services for a same-sex commitment ceremony. ADF appealed that case to the U.S. Supreme Court, but that court chose not to consider it, allowing the state court’s decision to stand.

A similar case involving a bakery that refused to even consider selling a wedding cake to a same-sex couple — also represented by ADF — was appealed to the Colorado Supreme Court, but last April the court declined to hear it, allowing the appeals court ruling against Jack Phillips of Masterpiece Cakeshop to stand.

UPDATE: ADF is already contemplating an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court — and is fundraising as much as possible toward that end.