The legal battle of a Richland florist who refused to create wedding bouquets for a gay customer ended this week when the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear her case for a second time, but the journey was not in vain, she said.
Baronelle Stutzman, the owner of Arlene’s Flowers, said on Friday that the experience has been a godsend and she has no regrets about taking a stand for her religious beliefs.
“We have been extremely blessed throughout this,” she said in a phone interview Friday. “We feel we have won by all the people we’ve met, the examples (of faith) we’ve seen.”
The case began in 2013, when Stutzman refused to provide flowers for the same-sex wedding of longtime customer Rob Ingersoll and his partner, Curt Freed. Instead, Stutzman suggested several other florists in the area who would help them.
“After Curt and I were turned away from our local flower shop, we canceled the plans for our dream wedding because we were afraid it would happen again,” said Ingersoll. “We had a small ceremony at home instead. We hope this decision sends a message to other LGBTQ people that no one should have to experience the hurt that we did.”
State Attorney General Bob Ferguson filed a consumer-protection lawsuit against Stutzman for refusing to serve the couple, alleging that she was violating Washington’s law against discrimination.
Stutzman, who has been represented by the Alliance Defending Freedom, had argued that forcing her to provide flowers violated her religious beliefs and was tantamount to “compelled speech” because it would force her to endorse same-sex marriage.
In a 2017 ruling, the state’s high court ruled unanimously that Stutzman violated Washington’s anti-discrimination law.
Writing for the court majority, state Supreme Court Justice Sheryl Gordon McCloud said then, “We emphatically reject this argument. We agree with Ingersoll and Freed that ‘this case is no more about access to flowers than civil rights cases 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.”
The court also rejected Stutzman’s claims that her floral arrangements were a form of artistic expression and thus protected by the First Amendment. Citing the case of a New Mexico photographer who similarly refused to take pictures at a gay wedding, the court said, “while photography may be expressive, the operation of a photography business is not.”
The ruling against Stutzman was appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, and in 2018 the high court ordered Washington state courts to take a new look at the case following a decision involving a Colorado baker who declined to make a cake for a same-sex wedding.
After that review, the Washington Supreme Court ruled unanimously that state courts did not act with animosity toward religion when it determined Stutzman broke the state’s anti-discrimination laws by refusing on religious grounds to provide flowers for the wedding.
On Friday, the U.S. Supreme Court turned down Stutzman’s petition to review the case. Justices Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito and Neil Gorsuch indicated they would have agreed to review the decision, leaving them one short of the four needed for the court to take the case.
“This case has always been about ensuring basic fairness, justice and equality for all Washingtonians,” Ferguson said on Friday. “Today, we won.”
The Christian nonprofit advocacy group that defended Stutzman said it was “tragic” the court had passed up Stutzman’s case.
“No one should be forced to express a message or celebrate an event they disagree with,” said General Counsel Kristen Waggoner in a statement. “A government that can crush someone like Barronelle, who kindly served her gay customer for nearly a decade but simply declined to create art celebrating one sacred ceremony, can use its power to crush any of us regardless of our political ideology or views on important issues like marriage.”
Waggoner said she was “confident” the Supreme Court will eventually affirm “the constitutionally protected freedom of creative professionals to live and work consistently with their most deeply held beliefs.”
Ria Tabacco Mar, a lawyer with the American Civil Liberties Union representing the couple and also the director of the ACLU Women’s Rights Project, said that while Friday’s decision “confirmed that LGBTQ people should receive equal service when they walk into a store,” the job isn’t done.
“No one should walk into a store and have to wonder whether they will be turned away because of who they are. Preventing that kind of humiliation and hurt is exactly why we have nondiscrimination laws. Yet 60 percent of states still don’t have express protections for LGBTQ people like the kind in Washington state. Our work isn’t over yet.”
Stutzman said Ingersoll has not been to her shop since she declined to create the floral arrangements for his wedding, but she would love for that to change.
“I wish he would,” she said. “I’d love for him to.”
Information from The Seattle Times archives and The Associated Press is included in this report.