Supreme Court Vacates Washington Florist Discrimination Case

(CN) – The Washington Supreme Court should reconsider its conclusion that a florist discriminated against a gay couple by refusing to sell them wedding flowers, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled Monday.

Last year, a unanimous en banc court concluded that the case was “no more about access to flowers than civil rights in the 1960s were about access to sandwiches.”

In 2013, Robert Ingersoll tried to buy wedding flowers from Arlene’s Flowers and Gifts in Richland, Washington for his 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.

After Stutzman refused to comply with an “assurance of discontinuance” sent by the state’s attorney general, promising she wouldn’t discriminate against customers based on their sexual orientation, the state sued.

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

Stutzman, 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.

Earlier this month the Supreme Court ruled 7-2 in favor of a Lakewood, Colorado baker who refused to make a wedding cake for a gay couple.

Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote for the majority that the state’s civil rights commission showed “elements of a clear and impermissible hostility toward the sincere religious beliefs” of the Christian baker.

The narrow focus of the Supreme Court ruling left an open question of how it would affect similar cases. The case involving the Colorado baker did not settle the law about whether a business can refuse business to a gay couple, though civil rights advocates remain optimistic.

“To be clear, the court made no indication the lower courts ruled incorrectly and made no decision on the case’s merits,” said James Esseks of the ACLU of the decision.

“We are confident that the Washington State Supreme Court will rule once again in favor of the same-sex couple, and reaffirm its decision that no business has a right to discriminate.”

Last week, the Oregon Supreme Court declined to hear an appeal of a case involving a bakery that refused to make a wedding cake for a lesbian couple.

The state’s Bureau of Labor and Industries ordered Aaron and Melissa Klein to pay damages to Rachel and Laurel Bowman-Cryer after concluding the Christian bakers violated Oregon’s discrimination law.

The Kleins are represented by attorneys from the First Liberty Institute, who believe they can appeal their case to the high court.

Washington Governor Jay Inslee said the Supreme Court decision regarding Arlene’s Flowers “does not surprise us or cause us any concern.”

“Unlike the recent decision in the Colorado case, in Washington there was never any indication of religious bias or hostility in our pursuit to protect consumers from discrimination.”

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