The Washington Supreme Court says a Christian florist broke state law by declining to participate in a same-sex wedding ceremony, setting the stage for the U.S. Supreme Court to weigh in on the contentious legal conflict between gay rights and religious liberty.
The state court rejected the First Amendment arguments advanced by Barronelle Stutzman, the 72-year-old owner of Arlene’s Flowers in Richland, Washington. It ruled that protections against compelled speech do not apply to her case because her work is not an “inherently expressive” act.
“Stutzman’s floral arrangements do not meet this definition,” Judge Gordon McCloud wrote in the unanimous decision. “Certainly, she argues that she intends to communicate a message through her floral arrangements. But the major contest is over whether Stutzman’s intended communications actually communicated something to the public at large — whether her conduct was ‘inherently expressive.’ And her actions in creating floral arrangements for wedding ceremonies do not satisfy this standard.”
Kristen Waggoner, a senior counsel for the Alliance Defending Freedom who argued the case before the Washington Supreme Court last November, said the Constitution “protects the right to dissent and to engage in free expression.”
“Because that freedom is clearly at risk for Barronelle and so many other Americans, and because no executive order can fix all of the threats to that freedom, we will ask the U.S. Supreme Court to hear this case and reverse this grave injustice,” Ms. Waggoner said in a statement.
Ms. Stutzman was sued by Curt Freed and Robert Ingersoll in 2013 after she declined to participate in their same-sex wedding ceremony.
“We’re thrilled that the Washington Supreme Court has ruled in our favor,” the couple said in a statement Thursday. “The court affirmed that we are on the right side of law and the right side of history.”
Mr. Ingersoll had been a customer at Arlene’s Flowers for nearly 10 years before he sued her. Ms. Stutzman said she knew he was gay but never refused him service prior to his request that she participate in his same-sex wedding ceremony.
“I knew Rob was gay for all those years, and it made no difference to me,” Ms. Stutzman said Thursday on a press call. “I chose not to participate in one event, and that’s what this is all about. If Rob walked into my shop tomorrow, I’d wait on him for another 10 years. I miss him.”
Elizabeth Gill, a staff attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union, which represents the gay couple, said religious liberty cannot be used as a pretext for discrimination.
“Religious freedom is a fundamental part of America,” Ms. Gill said in a statement. “But religious beliefs do not give any of us a right to ignore the law or to harm others because of who they are.”
The Washington Supreme Court decision comes as states across the country grapple with how to resolve disputes between gay couples and religious wedding vendors.
In one such case, Melissa and Aaron Klein, owners of Sweet Cakes by Melissa in Gresham, Oregon, were ordered to pay a $136,000 fine after refusing to bake a cake for a lesbian wedding.
And a gay couple sued Jack Phillips, the owner of a Masterpiece Cakeshop in Lakewood, Colorado, in 2012 after he declined to bake a cake for their ceremony. He offered to make the couple anything else they wanted, but was later ordered by an administrative law judge to bake the wedding cake.
He is currently waiting to hear whether the Supreme Court will take his case.
Joseph Backholm, president of the Family Policy Institute of Washington, said the Washington decision only “expands the government’s reach of what it can tell people to say and not say.”
“It’s hard to tell an artist what is ‘inherently expressive’ and what isn’t,” Mr. Backholm said. “The interesting thing about that is, even in oral arguments, the attorney general stipulated that it was expressive speech. So they’re disagreeing with the attorney general on that particular point. It’s the only rational way to reach the conclusion they reached.”
But gay-rights groups praised Thursday’s decision as a victory against discrimination.
“People should also never use their personal religious beliefs as a free pass to violate the law or the basic civil rights of others,” Sarah Warbelow, legal director for the Human Rights Campaign, said in a statement. “Businesses who are open to the public should be open to everyone on the same terms.”
Ms. Stutzman said it’s “terrifying” that the government is telling people “what to think and what to do and what to create.”
“We should all be very, very scared,” she said.