Supreme Court refuses to hear case of florist who denied services to same-sex couple

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The Supreme Court let stand a ruling that Washington state's nondiscrimination protections do not violate religious freedoms.

The Supreme Court on Friday decided not to hear Arlene's Flowers v. Washington, the case of a Washington state floral shop that refused to provide flowers for the wedding of a gay couple. The ruling is the latest turn in a legal journey that has gone on for eight years.

On March 1, 2013, Curt Freed and Robert Ingersoll, longtime customers of Arlene's Flowers and Gifts in the city of Richland, were informed by shop owner Barronelle Stutzman that she would not do the flowers for their wedding because doing so would violate her religious beliefs.

On April 13 of that year, the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington and Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson sued the business in a Washington court for violating the Washington Law Against Discrimination and the Washington Consumer Protection Act. Sexual orientation was added to the law as a protected category in 2006.

The Benton County Superior Court ruled in the plaintiffs' favor in Ingersoll v. Arlene's Flowers on Feb. 18, 2015. Stutzman appealed that ruling to the Washington Supreme Court, which also ruled in the couple's favor, in February 2017.

The U.S. Supreme Court vacated the 2017 decision and sent the case back to the Washington Supreme Court for review in June 2018 following the its ruling that year in Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission in favor of a baker who refused to bake a wedding cake for a same-sex couple. The ruling in Masterpiece, however, was on narrow grounds and did not touch on broader questions of religious freedom and LGBTQ nondiscrimination laws.

The U.S. Supreme Court's denial of the petition for a writ of certiorari lets stand a 2019 decision of the Washington state Supreme Court in favor of Ingersoll and Freed in which Justice Sheryl Gordon McCloud wrote:

We also hold that the WLAD may be enforced against Stutzman because it does not infringe any constitutional protection. As applied in this case, the WLAD does not compel speech or association. And assuming that it substantially burdens Stutzman's religious free exercise, the WLAD does not violate her right to religious free exercise under either the First Amendment or article I, section 11 [of the Washington Constitution] because it is a neutral, generally applicable law that serves our state government's compelling interest in eradicating discrimination in public accommodations.

Stutzman had appealed that 2019 ruling to the U.S. Supreme Court with the help of lawyers at the Alliance Defending Freedom, a group that frequently represents businesses and individuals who express anti-LGBTQ views. The alliance, designated a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center, has been at the center of efforts to pass bans on trans kids playing sports this year.

Civil rights groups celebrated the court's decision not to hear the case.

Sharon McGowan, legal director and chief strategy officer at Lambda Legal, tweeted, "The denial of cert (at long last) in Arlene's Flowers is welcome news indeed. Remember that case was sent back for further review after Masterpiece Cakeshop. WA SCT gave this case another careful examination & reached same conclusion. Now it's finally over. Yay."

The Human Rights Campaign said, "The Supreme Court is once again effectively saying that non-discrimination laws protecting LGBTQ people can stand."

In a press release, Ria Tabacco Mar, a lawyer with the ACLU who represents the couple, said, "Today the Supreme Court confirmed that LGBTQ people should receive equal service when they walk into a store."

In the same statement, Ingersoll said that the incident at the flower shop had caused him and his fiancé to have a small ceremony at home instead of their dream wedding because they feared they would face further discrimination and added, "We hope this decision sends a message to other LGBTQ people that no one should have to experience the hurt that we did."

The decision not to take up the case comes after a few days after the court denied certiorari to a case that could have set back transgender rights. On Monday, the Supreme Court said it wouldn't hear Gloucester County School Board v. Gavin Grimm, letting stand a lower court ruling that refusing a trans student access to the bathroom of their gender is a violation of Title IX of the Education Amendments Act of 1972.

On June 17, the court ruled in Fulton v. Philadelphia, a case involving a religious foster care agency that claimed the right not to consider same-sex couples as prospective foster parents. Although the court ruled in favor of the agency, the ruling was narrow, and advocates for LGBTQ people said they were relieved the court did not recognize "a license to discriminate based on religious beliefs."

Published with permission of The American Independent Foundation.