The Washington State Supreme Court has reaffirmed a February 2017 ruling finding that a Richland florist violated the state’s nondiscrimination law when she refused to sell flowers to a gay couple for their wedding.
The decision is significant, as it pushes back against a decision by the U.S. Supreme Court last year that vacated the 2017 ruling and ordered the court to reconsider its decision, in case there was potentially any animus directed against Barronelle Stutzman, the owner of the Richland-based Arlene’s Flowers, due to her religious beliefs opposing homosexuality and same-sex marriage.
The high court’s decision to vacate and remand the case was based on its narrow ruling in the Masterpiece Cakeshop case that found that the Colorado Civil Rights Commission may have allowed the biases of some commissioners to influence its decision finding Masterpiece Cakeshop owner Jack Phillips violated Colorado’s nondiscrimination law by refusing to sell a wedding cake to a gay couple.
But in the Masterpiece case, the high court did not resolve the issue of whether Phillips and others like him with sincerely held religious beliefs opposing homosexuality or same-sex marriage have an intrinsic right to refuse service based on a person’s sexual orientation.
As a result, it leaves open the possibility that other cases involving LGBTQ people’s ability to access places of public accommodation will arise in the future — including, potentially, the Arlene’s Flowers case.
In its decision on Thursday, the Washington State Supreme Court found that Stutzman’s religious views were taken into account and that there was no bias demonstrated towards her when the case was heard two years ago.
“[O]n remand, we have painstakingly reviewed the record for any sign of intolerance on behalf of this court or the Benton County Superior Court, the two adjudicatory bodies to consider this case,” the decision reads. “After this review, we are confident that the two courts gave full and fair consideration to this dispute and avoided animus toward religion. We therefore find no reason to change our original decision in light of Masterpiece Cakeshop.”
The court also found Stutzman’s arguments for why she should not be required to abide by the Washington Law Against Discrimination unconvincing, and rejected her claims that the law violates her First Amendment rights and her calls for a religious exemption to be added to the law.
“Stutzman contends that there is no reason to enforce the WLAD when, as she puts it, ‘[N]o access problem exists.’ We emphatically reject this argument,” the court wrote. “We agree with [plaintiffs Robert] Ingersoll and [Curt] Freed that ‘[t]his case is no more about access to flowers than civil rights cases in the 1960s were about access to sandwiches.’
“As every other court to address the question has concluded, public accommodations laws do not simply guarantee access to goods or services. Instead, they serve a broader societal purpose: eradicating barriers to the equal treatment of all citizens in the commercial marketplace. Were we to carve out a patchwork of exceptions for ostensibly justified discrimination, that purpose would be fatally undermined.”
The LGBTQ legal advocacy organization Lambda Legal praised the Washington Supreme Court’s decision.
“The Washington Supreme Court today again confirmed a simple principle: our precious freedoms of religion and speech do not give businesses a license to discriminate against LGBT people,” Jennifer Pizer, the director of law and policy for Lambda Legal, said in a statement.
“…Lawyers for Arlene’s Flowers’ owner, Baronelle Stutzman, had pressed a series of extreme arguments to justify Stutzman’s request for a license to discriminate against same-sex couples,” Pizer added. “The Washington Supreme Court today reaffirmed its thorough, forceful rejection of every one of these arguments. We are thrilled that the court has so clearly and emphatically rebuffed this florist’s attorneys’ attempts to justify discrimination and congratulate the ACLU and Washington State Attorney General Bob Ferguson on this important victory.”
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