Florist loses again at Washington high court

OLYMPIA, Wash. (BP) -- Barronelle Stutzman's commitment to operate her florist business according to Christian convictions again found an unreceptive audience in Washington's highest court.

Baronnelle Stutzman
 
The state Supreme Court ruled in a unanimous decision June 6 that Washington's judicial system did not demonstrate religious animosity toward Stutzman when it concluded she illegally discriminated by declining to design flowers for a same-sex wedding. The court also ruled against the florist in 2017.

Stutzman's case returned to Washington's highest court after the U.S. Supreme Court annulled in a 2018 order a lower-court ruling against her. The order also instructed the Washington Supreme Court to reconsider its previous decision in light of the justices' new opinion in favor of a Colorado cake artist who refused to design and decorate a cake to celebrate the wedding of two men. In that 7-2 decision, the high court ruled the Colorado Civil Rights Commission violated the religious free exercise clause of the First Amendment and demonstrated in its action "religious hostility" toward Jack Phillips, owner of Masterpiece Cakeshop.

The Washington Supreme Court, which did not hold oral arguments in Stutzman's case this time, found neither it nor a lower court exhibited such animosity toward the florist.

Acknowledging she was "disappointed and upset" about the decision, Stutzman -- a Southern Baptist -- said she would appeal again to the country's highest court.

In the state Supreme Court's unanimous opinion, Justice Sheryl Gordon McCloud wrote, "[W]e are confident that the courts resolved this dispute with tolerance, and we therefore find no reason to change our original judgment in light of" the Masterpiece Cakeshop ruling.

Washington's high court reaffirmed its 2017 finding that refusing to provide services for a same-sex wedding comprises sexual orientation discrimination.

The state prohibits "discrimination in public accommodations [such as retail businesses] on the basis of sexual orientation," McCloud said. "Discrimination based on same-sex marriage constitutes discrimination based on sexual orientation."

Washington's anti-discrimination law doesn't force speech or association, she wrote, and it does not violate Stutzman's free exercise of religion because it is "a neutral, generally applicable law" and fulfills the state's "compelling interest in eradicating discrimination in public accommodations."

Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), which represents Stutzman in the case, said the Washington high court applied the U.S. Supreme Court's instructions too narrowly. Stutzman's contention that state Attorney General Bob Ferguson demonstrated hostility toward religion in his suit against her was the reason the U.S. Supreme Court sent the case back to the Washington high court, according to ADF.

Stutzman "serves all customers; she simply declines to celebrate or participate in sacred events that violate her deeply held beliefs," ADF Senior Counsel John Bursch said in a written release. "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."

Ferguson not only initiated the state's suit against Stutzman's business but sued her personally, threatening all of her assets, according to ADF.

Stutzman, 74, had served Robert Ingersoll, a gay man, for nearly 10 years and had become friends with him. She also had hired gay employees at her shop, Arlene's Flowers, in Richland, Wash. When Ingersoll asked her to design the flowers for his 2013 wedding to Curt Freed, Stutzman told him she could not because using her artistic ability to take part in the ceremony would violate her beliefs. She referred him to other florists in the area who would provide flowers for the wedding.

"I loved and served Rob for nearly 10 years, and I would serve him for another 10 years," Stutzman said in an ADF release. "It never mattered to me that he was gay. He enjoyed my custom floral designs, and I loved creating them for him. The attorney general has always ignored that part of my case, choosing to vilify me and my faith instead of respecting my religious beliefs about marriage.

"Now I could lose my business and life savings simply because I declined to celebrate and participate in a sacred event that violates my faith. No artist or creative professional should be forced by the government to create custom work that conflicts with their deeply held beliefs."

Michele Storms, executive director of the ACLU of Washington, expressed gratitude the Washington high court recognized the Masterpiece opinion "does not give people a license to use religion to discriminate. Religion is a fundamental right, but businesses open to the public must be open to all."

The ACLU of Washington represents Ingersoll and Freed in the case.

The ERLC and other religious organizations filed a friend-of-the-court brief in 2017 in support of Stutzman's appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court. In their brief, the ERLC and its allies said the lower-court rulings mean Stutzman "will be forced to express the government's message or lose her business and personal assets. That is a stunning result for the millions of business owners and workers who believe they have the responsibility to practice their faith in their business vocation by refraining from activities that violate their religious beliefs."

ERLC President Russell Moore introduced Stutzman at the 2015 SBC meeting during the entity's report, and she received a standing ovation from messengers.

State laws and court rulings -- and especially the U.S. Supreme Court's 2015 legalization of gay marriage -- have brought intense pressure on Christians and other people of faith who believe marriage is only between a man and a woman. This has been especially true in the wedding business, where florists, cake designers, photographers and others have been sued for declining to use their talents for same-sex weddings.

The case is Arlene's Flowers v. Washington.

Tom Strode is Washington bureau chief for Baptist Press, the Southern Baptist Convention's news service. BP reports on missions, ministry and witness advanced through the Cooperative Program and on news related to Southern Baptists' concerns nationally and globally.
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