USA Justice First Look

WA Supreme Court: By refusing same-sex wedding, florist violated anti-discrimination law

Ms. Stutzman refused to create flower arrangements for Rob Ingersoll and Curt Freed's wedding, saying it would violate her religious beliefs to participate in a same-sex wedding.

Barronelle Stutzman, center, a Richland, Washington, florist who was fined for denying service to a gay couple in 2013, looks around as she is surrounded by supporters after a hearing before Washington's Supreme Court, on Tuesday, Nov. 15, 2016, in Bellevue, Wash.
Elaine Thompson/ AP/ File | Caption

The Washington State Supreme Court ruled unanimously on Thursday that a florist based in the city of Richland discriminated against customers Rob Ingersoll and Curt Freed when she refused to sell flowers for their wedding in 2013. The ruling upheld a closely-watched decision from last February, when a Benton County Superior Court judge ruled that her religious beliefs did not allow her to discriminate against the same-sex couple.

Mr. Ingersoll and Mr. Freed had been longtime customers of Barronelle Stutzman before the 2013 refusal. But when Ingersoll asked whether she would design the flowers for his wedding ceremony, Stutzman, a devout Southern Baptist, refused on the grounds that her involvement in a same-sex wedding ceremony would violate her religious beliefs. The couple initially did not want to pursue the matter in court, but eventually decided to file a lawsuit after multiple conversations with friends and a personal phone call from Washington's attorney general.

Since then, the ensuing legal battle has become the latest in a series of high-profile cases over the past few years involving refusals to LGBT customers on the grounds of religious beliefs. And it's the latest of several to rule in favor of the customers, a fact hailed by Washington Gov. Jay Inslee.

"By ruling that intolerance based on sexual orientation is unlawful, the Court affirmed that Washington state will remain a place where no one can be discriminated against because of who they love," Governor Inslee said in a statement, according to The Los Angeles Times.

Stutzman's legal team, however, said they planned to appeal to the US Supreme Court. 

The issue of refusing services to LGBT people has divided Americans for years. Attorneys for Stutzman, from the conservative law group Alliance Defending Freedom, argued that a floral arrangement is a creative form of expression, or speech, deserving of protection. The group argued in court that the government is not allowed to force anyone to make an expression, in the form of a flower arrangement, that would violate that person's religious beliefs.

During a November hearing for the case last year, some justices expressed concerns that such a broad definition of speech would extend to an unacceptably wide range of services that involved creative expression. It was asked why floral arranging would be any different from the creative expression of bartenders, stationery providers, or landscape artists.

"So anyone worried about their expression may deny services to a customer?" Justice Steven Gonzalez asked skeptically at the time.

Ultimately, the judges decided that the answer to that question should be no.

The ruling will come as a blow for Stutzman, as well as conservative and religious advocates who have been watching her case closely over the past few years, as Warren Richey reported for The Christian Science Monitor in August 2016.

"All people, regardless of sexual orientation are to have 'full enjoyment of any of the accommodations, advantages, facilities, or privileges' of any place of public accommodation...." reads the final ruling in the case. "All discriminatory acts, including any act 'which directly or indirectly results in any distinction, restriction, or discrimination' based on a person's sexual orientation is an unfair practice."

Attorney General Bob Ferguson, who sued Stutzman along with the couple, had argued that because Stutzman runs a public business, she is required by law to serve all customers equally, regardless of their sexual orientation. But "Ms. Stutzman is free to believe what she wishes," he said in November.