Florist’s Refusal to Serve Gay Couple Was Discrimination, Court Finds

OLYMPIA, Wash. (CN) – A florist who refused to provide arrangements for a gay couple’s wedding broke Washington state’s anti-discrimination laws, the state’s high court ruled Thursday.

The unanimous en banc court agreed with the couple that the case was “no more about access to flowers than civil rights cases in the 1960s were about access to sandwiches.”

Robert Ingersoll tried to buy wedding flowers from Arlene’s Flowers and Gifts in Richland, Washington, in 2013 for his wedding fiancé Curt Freed. But the store’s owner Barronelle Stutzman refused, citing “her relationship with Jesus Christ,” according to court records.

Ingersoll had previously patronized the florist, spending several thousand dollars at the shop over the course of nearly a decade. He said Stutzman knew he is gay, and that he and his partner considered the shop to be “their florist.”

For her part, Stutzman said she hugged Ingersoll before he left the store and gave him the names of other florists who could serve him.

Freed wrote a Facebook post about the hurt and disappointment he felt being denied the florist’s services, and the post went viral and was picked up by numerous media outlets. The spread of the story led to several florists offering the couple free services, and the couple married at a small ceremony in their home in July 2013.

In response to the refusal to serve the couple, the state attorney general’s office sent Stutzman a letter that asked her to sign an “assurance of discontinuance,” a promise she would not discriminate against customers based on their sexual orientation. The florist refused, and the state sued in state court, along with the American Civil Liberties Union.

The couple also filed a private action against Stutzman and her store, which was consolidated with the state’s case.

Stutzman, who is 72 and a Southern Baptist, asserted First Amendment defenses to the claims, arguing her refusal was based on her constitutionally protected religious beliefs.

The Benton County court found in favor of the state and the couple, finding that Stutzman violated the public accommodations provision of Washington state’s law against discrimination, and that both she and Arlene’s Flowers were liable. The court also found that Stuzman’s First Amendment rights were not violated.

On appeal, the florist argued that if she discriminated against Ingersoll, it was on the basis of his “marital status,” not his sexual orientation, and the former is not a protected class.

The Washington Supreme Court panel rejected that argument in a 59-page opinion issued Thursday.

Washington state law against discrimination of sexual orientation does not have an exception for same-sex marriages, the panel explained, and Stutzman’s refusal to provide flower services was discrimination against the couple because they were gay.

The high court also rejected Stutzman’s argument that the anti-discrimination law “forces her to endorse same-sex marriage” because she did not show that the commercial sale of flowers was an “expression” under the First Amendment.

“The major contest is over whether Stutzman’s intended communications actually communicated something to the public at large – whether her conduct was ‘inherently expressive,’” Justice Sheryl Gordon McCloud wrote for the court. “And her actions in creating floral arrangements for wedding ceremonies do not satisfy this standard.”

Stutzman had acknowledged in a deposition that providing flowers for a Muslim wedding or a wedding of two atheists would not necessarily mean she endorsed Islam or atheism, and the court found her business of floral arrangements was not an “inherently expressive activity” for the purposes of the First Amendment.

Stutzman had sought an exemption in the law to allow her to refuse flower arrangements for same-sex weddings on religious grounds, which the court also rejected.

The justices agreed with the couple’s argument that “this 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,” Gordon McCloud wrote.
“Were we to carve out a patchwork of exceptions for ostensibly justified discrimination, that purpose would be fatally undermined.”

Freed and Ingersoll praised the decision in a joint public statement.

“We’re thrilled that the Washington Supreme Court has ruled in our favor,” they said.  “The court affirmed that we are on the right side of the law and the right side of history. We felt it was so important that we stand up against discrimination because we don’t want what happened to us to happen to anyone else.”

In a statement, Kathleen Taylor of Washington state’s ACLU said, “Religious beliefs do not give any of us a right to ignore the law or to harm others because of who they are.”

Alliance Defending Freedom, the organization who represented Stutzman, characterized the decision as the court “punishing” their client “for peacefully operating her business consistently with her faith,” and criticized the order requiring the florist to pay attorney fees.

In a statement issued by the group’s senior counsel Jim Campbell, the alliance called on President Donald Trump to create an executive order “to take a stand against the ongoing efforts to marginalize people of faith.”