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Washington Florist Readies for Hearing at State Supreme Court

  • Bonnie Pritchett Religious persecution, missions, Christianity around the world
  • Updated Mar 14, 2016

Calling the divorce of religious belief from religious expression “unconstitutional and completely hollow,” attorneys for Barronelle Stutzman will argue before the Washington Supreme Court that a “very robust” state statute and U.S. constitutional guarantees support their client. The state high court agreed Mar. 1 to hear the case of the embattled Washington florist sued for declining to create arrangements for a same-sex wedding because of her Christian convictions about marriage.

Opposing attorneys, and a lower court ruling, claim Stutzman’s ability to act upon her religious convictions and expressive freedoms end where Washington state law begins. Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) are leveraging sexual orientation and gender identity (SOGI) non-discrimination laws and the U.S. Supreme Court’s same-sex marriage ruling to force a “no-exceptions” application of public accommodation laws. They argue if Stutzman, owner of Arlene’s Flowers, provides floral arrangements for heterosexual couples, she must do likewise for same-sex couples, regardless of her beliefs.

“It does not matter what you think about marriage,” Kristen Waggoner, Alliance Defending Freedom senior counsel told me. “The way these cases come out will affect you.”

Few cases like Stutzman’s dotted America’s legal landscape 10 years ago as states began to consider recognizing same-sex marriage and establishing SOGI laws. The timing and peculiarities of Ingersoll v. Arlene’s Flowers set it apart from earlier cases and put it on a trajectory for the U.S. Supreme Court, Stutzman’s lawyers hope.

In 2006, photographer Elane Huguenin was sued for declining to photograph a lesbian couple’s commitment ceremony. She lost her eight-year bid for a hearing before the U. S. Supreme Court in 2014. Huguenin’s case was unusual—at the time.

“That is no longer an anomaly,” Waggoner said. “It is becoming a regular occurrence.”

The Arlene’s Flowers case is unique because the ACLU and Washington attorney general not only sued the business, they initially sued Stutzman personally. Under public pressure, Ferguson backed off suing the 71-year-old grandmother and breast cancer survivor, reducing the state’s fine to $2,000. But the ACLU still seeks fines and attorney’s fees, which Waggoner said could easily reach seven figures.

In 2013, Stutzman declined to create floral arrangements for long-time customer Robert Ingersoll’s wedding to partner Curt Freed. ADF attorneys will continue to argue Stutzman’s floral arrangements are constitutionally protected creative expressions. As such, Stutzman cannot be forced to use her artistic talents in ways that conflict with her deeply held religious convictions about the biblical nature of marriage.

“The trial court’s and [the state’s and the ACLU’s] view—that there can never be a free speech exception to public accommodation laws—endangers everyone,” ADF attorneys state in their appeal. “If correct, then the consciences of all citizens are fair game for the government.”

In addition to the “no exceptions” application of nondiscrimination laws, the ACLU and Ferguson charged “defendants refused to sell flowers to Mr. Ingersoll and Mr. Freed for their wedding solely on the basis of their sexual orientation.”

But evidence of the years-long customer relationship between Ingersoll, Freed, and Stutzman belies claims Stutzman is guilty of discrimination. The florist knew Ingersoll was gay when she collaborated with him many times over the years on arrangements he ordered for Freed.

“Mrs. Stutzman and other people of faith are not purveyors of invidious discrimination,” the brief states. “They simply cannot endorse the redefinition of what they consider to be an immutable religious institution.”

ACLU attorneys contend the redefinition of marriage and SOGI laws do not deprive Americans of their religious liberties because they can continue to believe whatever they want. But Waggoner noted that interpretation of First Amendment protections defies common sense. People throughout human history have always been free to believe anything they want. America added a new layer of religious liberty by constitutionally protecting freedoms that allow people to act on their religious or non-religious convictions.

“Contrary to the state’s assertions, there is no option that would allow Mrs. Stutzman to comply with the trial court’s orders and her faith,” the ADF brief states. “Not creating wedding designs altogether is not a means of complying with Mrs. Stutzman’s religious beliefs—faith is what motivates her to celebrate marriage through her art.”

Courtesy: WORLD News Service

Publication date: March 14, 2016