Metro Weekly

Supreme Court sends anti-gay florist’s case back to lower court for reconsideration

Owner of Arlene's Flowers will have another chance to argue for a religious exemption to Washington's nondiscrimination law

Floral bouquets – Photo: Ms angie gray, via Wikimedia.

The U.S. Supreme Court has told a lower court to reconsider its ruling in the case of a Washington State florist who was fined after she refused to provide flowers for a same-sex wedding.

The case serves as yet another example, following the decision in the Masterpiece Cakeshop case a few weeks ago, of the high court refusing to answer whether LGBTQ people can be discriminated against by businesses.

Barronelle Stutzman, the proprietor of Arlene’s Flowers in Richland, Wash., argued that her religious beliefs opposing same-sex marriage prevented her from providing floral arrangements for the wedding of Curt Freed and Robert Ingersoll, a gay couple.

After losing at the district court level, Stutzman and her lawyers appealed the case to the Washington State Supreme Court, which unanimously found that the florist had violated Washington State’s nondiscrimination law, arguing that requiring her to provide equal service to all customers did not violate her constitutional rights.

“Discrimination based on same-sex marriage constitutes discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation,” Justice Sheryl Gordon McCloud wrote on behalf of the court at the time, adding, “As applied in this case, the WLAD does not compel speech or association. And assuming that it substantially burdens Stutzman’s religious free exercise, the WLAD does not violate her right to religious free exercise under either the First Amendment or article I, section 11 because it is a neutral, generally applicable law that serves our state government’s compelling interest in eradicating discrimination in public accommodations.”

Stutzman appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which has subsequently sent back the case to the Washington State Supreme Court to see if there was any anti-religious bias in the same way the court had found that members of the Colorado Civil Rights Commission had demonstrated bias against baker Jack Phillips in the Masterpiece Cakeshop case. (Read more about the Masterpiece case here.)

What this means is that Stutzman will have another chance to convince the Washington State Supreme Court to rule in her favor. If the court determines there was no bias, and affirms its earlier decision, Stutzman’s lawyers will again appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.

The high court seems to be signaling an unwillingness to hear any lawsuits involving similar issues to those broached in both the Arlene’s Flowers and Masterpiece cases during its next term, but it only delays the inevitable. Eventually the court will have to decide whether there should be religious exemptions to civil rights laws preventing discrimination in public accommodations.

LGBTQ advocates have warned that the high court has opened a Pandora’s box by alleging that there is anti-religious bias in any cases involving the right of LGBTQ people to access public accommodations. They also believe that the high court has refused to acknowledge its own precedent (in a Civil Rights-era case involving black customers turned away from a barbecue restaurant) involving religious objections to nondiscrimination laws.

“Today’s decision is immensely frustrating and disappointing. Just as in the Masterpiece Cakeshop case decided three weeks ago, the Supreme Court should simply have reaffirmed longstanding constitutional principles that freedom of religion is not a license to discriminate,” Jennifer Pizer, senior counsel and law and policy director at Lambda Legal, said in a statement. “Laws requiring businesses to be open to all do not conflict with the Constitution. It is past time to put to rest these proliferating attempts to undermine the civil rights of LGBT people in the name of religion.”

Pizer went on to explain that there is no evidence that the Washington State Supreme Court, or the Benton County Superior Court, had acted prejudicially towards Stutzman.

“This order is particularly troubling given the narrow, fact-specific nature of the Masterpiece ruling.  Unlike in Masterpiece, the florist in this action — Arlene’s Flowers, Inc. v. Washington — had no plausible basis for claiming there was hostility to her religious beliefs among those deciding her case. There is no genuine need for reconsideration of the Washington Supreme Court’s well-reasoned, unanimous application of key constitutional principles,” she said.

“Indeed, in Arlene’s Flowers, the Washington Court stressed that ‘this case is no more about the access to flowers than the civil rights cases were about access to sandwiches.’ We are confident that the Washington Court will once again rule in favor of equality and non-discrimination, but it is a travesty that the US Supreme Court did not simply end this case today.”

The Human Rights Campaign issued its own statement reacting to the decision.

“The Supreme Court has simply asked the lower court to take another look at this case in light of their recent decision in Masterpiece, but they did not indicate there was anything wrong with the ruling,” said HRC Legal Director Sarah Warbelow. “…[T]here is no indication that there were flaws in the application of civil rights law in Arlene’s Flowers. We view this decision as encouraging news that justice will prevail and the Washington State Supreme Court will again uphold the state’s non-discrimination laws ensuring LGBTQ people cannot be turned away from a business open to the public.”

John Riley is the local news reporter for Metro Weekly. He can be reached at jriley@metroweekly.com

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