Yesterday, in a closely monitored religious liberty case, the Washington Supreme Court unanimously upheld a lower court’s ruling against florist Barronelle Stutzman, holding that floral arraignments do not constitute free speech and that Barronell’s religious liberty and conscience objections about participating in a same-sex wedding ceremony constitute a violation of Washington anti-discrimination laws. The court also mandated Stutzman pay the plaintiff’s attorney fees which could potentially be hundreds of thousands of dollars.
The decision represents the latest setback for Stutzman, a 72-year-old florist, and owner of Arlene’s Flowers. The controversy began in 2013 when Robert Ingersoll, an openly gay and long-time customer, asked Barronelle to provide the floral arrangement for his upcoming same-sex wedding. Although Barronelle has served everyone in her community, regardless of race, sex, religion, or sexual orientation, she informed Robert that she could not use her artistic skills to celebrate an event that violated her sincerely held religious beliefs regarding the nature of marriage. Ingersoll, represented by the ACLU, sued, alleging discrimination. In 2015 a lower court ruled that Washington state law prohibited businesses open to the general public from discriminating even on the basis of sincerely held religious beliefs. Subsequent lawsuits and appeals, including yesterday’s decision, have upheld the initial ruling against Barronelle.
Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), which represents Barronelle, announced that they are appealing the decision to the United States Supreme Court.
In their arguments before the court, ADF framed the case as a fight for basic religious liberty. Following the court’s decision, ADF released a statement which reads in part: “the State of Washington (which first filed a lawsuit against Barronelle) and now the State’s highest court have declared illegal [Barronell’s] practice of running her business consistently with her faith. Regardless of the fact that she has created dozens of floral arrangements for Rob, she must also produce artwork under circumstances that would violate her convictions.”
As noted in ADF’s statement, Stutzman served Rob Ingersoll (the plaintiff) for nearly a decade with the knowledge that he was an openly gay man. At no point did she ever deny service to Rob based on his sexual orientation. Barronelle’s objection to providing flowers only came about when she was asked to render her artistic skills for a ceremony that violated her sincerely held religious beliefs about marriage. Thus Stutzman, a Southern Baptist who believes in the traditional definition of marriage as between one man and one woman, objected to an event, not a person.
In response to yesterday’s decision by the Washington State Supreme Court, Russell Moore, the President of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission said, “The Washington Supreme Court’s ruling shortchanges our nation’s most fundamental freedom in favor of ideological conformity. Barronelle Stutzman followed her genuinely held beliefs without hostility toward any, and yet finds herself the target of a government that wants to steamroll her constitutional rights. The Court held that the government can force citizens to use their creative gifts and expressive speech to participate and endorse acts they believe to be immoral. This decision is a loss not only for Barronelle Stutzman but for every American who values liberty and civility over coercion by the government. My prayer is that this ruling would be overturned and that the U.S. Supreme Court would recognize the crucial importance of religious liberty.”
Moving forward, Barronell’s appeal to the United States Supreme Court will be closely watched by those concerned with the increasing animus demonstrated by local, state, and federal government officials toward those who hold to positions on marriage and sexuality that differ from the new orthodoxy. Religious liberty advocates concerned with increasing marginalization based on sincerely held religious belief will also follow closely the high court’s review of the case.