U.S. Justices End Florist Fight to Discriminate Against Gay Couple on Religious Grounds

The Supreme Court, on a July 2 divided vote, passed up a chance to again delve into the question whether a private business can discriminate against LGBTQ customers. The justices denied a petition for certiorari in a case from Washington state that involved a retailer’s refusal to provide flowers for a gay couple’s wedding.

A June 2019 decision by the Washington Supreme Court found that the florist, Arlene’s Flowers, Inc. of Richland, Wash., had not shown any hostility to religion in state court proceedings that found the florist violated a state antidiscrimination law. The decision by that court followed a remand of a previous opinion by the Washington high court affirming a finding that the company and its owners transgressed that law. The U.S. Supreme Court asked the state high court to consider the impact of the U.S. justices’ June 2018 decision in Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission.

“We hope this decision sends a message to other LGBTQ people that no one should have to experience the hurt that we did,” said Robert Ingersoll, who unsuccessfully sought to purchase flowers for his 2013 wedding from Arlene’s Flowers owner Barronelle Stutzman, in a statement. Stuzman, an adherent of the Southern Baptist religion, told Ingersoll that she would not provide flowers for his wedding to Curt Freed because “her relationship with Jesus Christ” forbade it. 

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In the Masterpiece Cakeshop case, the court ruled that a Colorado administrative agency failed to give fair consideration to the religious views of a baker in finding a violation of the state’s Anti-Discrimination Act. But the justices, by a 7-2 vote, also made clear that the right of LGBTQ individuals to be free from discrimination must also be considered. “It is unexceptional that Colorado law can protect gay persons, just as it can protect other classes of individuals, in acquiring whatever products and services they choose on the same terms and conditions as are offered to other members of the public,” wrote Justice Anthony Kennedy in the majority opinion.

Kennedy also explained that a religious exemption to laws that require equal treatment of persons in commercial transactions would have to be narrow. “[A]ny decision in favor of the baker would have to be sufficiently constrained, lest all purveyors of goods and services who object to gay marriages for moral and religious reasons in effect be allowed to put up signs saying ‘no goods or services will be sold if they will be used for gay marriages,’ something that would impose a serious stigma on gay persons,” he wrote.

The Arlene’s Flowers case first arrived at the Supreme Court in 2018, at which time the justices sent it back to Washington’s state supreme court to apply Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission and reconsider an earlier ruling in favor of Ingersoll and Curt Freed. 

On remand, the Washington Supreme Court again upheld a trial court’s decree that the flower shop violated the state anti-discrimination law. The court noted that the Richland-based flower shop previously served gay and lesbian customers, though not in connection with weddings. It also concluded that no anti-religious bias affected the lower court proceedings. “Appellants still do not claim that our court or the Benton County Superior Court failed to adjudicate ‘with the religious neutrality that the Constitution requires,’” wrote Washington Justice Gordon McCloud.

The vote not to hear Arlene’s Flowers, Inc. v.  Washington, No. 19-333, on its second trip to the high court was 6-3. Justices Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito, and Neil Gorsuch indicated they wanted to hear the case, but did not state any reason for their preference.

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