Political News

Justices Send Clash Between Florist and Gay Couple Back to Lower Courts

Posted June 25, 2018 10:31 a.m. EDT

WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court on Monday told a lower court to reconsider the case of a florist in Washington state who had refused to create a floral arrangement for a same-sex wedding. The justices vacated a decision against the florist from the Washington Supreme Court and instructed it to take a fresh look at the dispute in light of this month’s ruling in a similar dispute involving a Colorado baker.

The case, Arlene’s Flowers v. state of Washington, No. 17-108, started in 2013, when the florist, Barronelle Stutzman, turned down a request from a longtime customer, Robert Ingersoll, to provide flowers for his wedding to another man, Curt Freed. Stutzman said her religious principles did not allow her to do so.

She said she should not have to participate in same-sex weddings, which had been recognized in Washington the previous year.

“Since 2012, same-sex couples all over the state have been free to act on their beliefs about marriage,” Stutzman wrote, “but because I follow the Bible’s teaching that marriage is the union of one man and one woman, I am no longer free to act on my beliefs.”

The couple and the state both sued and they won in the state courts.

The Washington Supreme Court ruled that Stutzman had violated a state anti-discrimination law by refusing to provide the floral arrangement. “This case is no more about access to flowers than civil rights cases in the 1960s were about access to sandwiches,” the court said, quoting from the plaintiffs’ brief.

The Supreme Court had put the Washington case on hold while it considered the one from Colorado. But it ended up deciding the Colorado case on narrow grounds specific to the dispute, saying the baker there had faced religious hostility from members of a state civil rights commission that had ruled against him.

There were no similar factors in the Washington case, Bob Ferguson, Washington’s attorney general, said in a statement. “The court specifically found that the Colorado Civil Rights Commission’s treatment of that case ‘has some elements of a clear and impermissible hostility’ toward the religious beliefs of the business owner,” Ferguson said. “We are confident Washington courts showed no such hostility.”

The meaning and sweep of the Colorado case are contested, but at least one court has already determined that it reaffirmed protections for gay men and lesbians who had been subject to discrimination by businesses open to the public. On June 7, the Arizona Court of Appeals ruled that a company that sells cards and decorations for weddings had violated a Phoenix anti-discrimination ordinance by refusing to supply custom goods to a same-sex union.

The ruling quoted at length from Justice Anthony Kennedy’s majority opinion in the Colorado case, Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission. “Our society has come to the recognition that gay persons and gay couples cannot be treated as social outcasts or as inferior in dignity and worth,” Kennedy wrote in one of the quoted passages. “For that reason the laws and the Constitution can, and in some instances must, protect them in the exercise of their civil rights.”

A case pitting anti-discrimination laws against claims of conscience in the context of same-sex marriage may yet reach the Supreme Court. A number of disputes concerning businesses that sell wedding services, including calligraphers, photographers and videographers, are being litigated around the nation.