Florist Discriminated Against Gay Couple, Washington State Supreme Court Rules

SEATTLE — A florist who refused to sell flowers for a same-sex wedding cannot claim religious belief as a defense under the state’s anti-discrimination laws, Washington’s high court said Thursday, in a case that has been watched around the nation by religious and civil rights groups.

Curt Freed, left, and Robert Ingersoll sued Ms. Stutzman for refusing to provide flowers for their wedding. Credit Elaine Thompson/Associated Press
Curt Freed, left, and Robert Ingersoll sued Ms. Stutzman for refusing to provide flowers for their wedding. Credit Elaine Thompson/Associated Press

The case thrust the great-grandmother into the national spotlight and she testified before state lawmakers in Indiana and Kansas.

Michael Scott, a Seattle attorney who worked with the American Civil Liberties Union to represent Robert Ingersoll and Curt Freed — the couple denied the flowers — had previously told justices he didn’t believe Stutzman’s floral creations constituted speech. By providing flowers for a same-sex marriage, he argued, “she’s not endorsing same-sex marriage. She’s selling what she sells.”

Ferguson had said the state’s argument rested on longstanding principle, and uprooting it would weaken anti-discrimination law.

After the arguments in the Supreme Court case last November, at a packed theater at Bellevue College, a large crowd of Stutzman’s supporters greeted her outside, chanting her name and waving signs with pictures of roses that said “Justice For Barronelle.”

In a February ruling, Benton County Superior Court Judge Alexander Ekstrom found that Stutzman’s refusal to provide flowers because of sexual orientation violated Washington’s anti-discrimination and consumer protection laws. She has been fined $1,000, plus $1 in court costs and fees.

She had previously sold the couple flowers and knew they were gay. However, Stutzman told them that she couldn’t provide flowers for their wedding because same-sex marriage was incompatible with her Christian beliefs.

Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson and the couple sued her, saying she broke state anti-discrimination and consumer protection laws, and the lower court agreed. The state’s nine high court justices upheld that verdict.

The state’s attorney general, Bob Ferguson, who argued the case before the high court, said the opinion was both sweeping and precise.

“Arlene’s Flowers is not required to sell wedding flowers,” Mr. Ferguson said. “They are, however, required to sell wedding flowers equally if they choose to sell them.” The ruling, he said, sends a clear message that “sexual orientation is a protected class — just like race, just like religion.”

Ms. Stutzman, 72, said the power of the government to crush dissent was what resonated for her in the opinion.

“We should all be very, very scared,” she said.

The case, the court said in its 59-page decision, “is no more about access to flowers than civil rights cases in the 1960s were about access to sandwiches.” And laws, the decision said, can have legitimate social goals. “Public accommodations laws do not simply guarantee access to goods or services,” it said. “Instead, they serve a broader societal purpose: eradicating barriers to the equal treatment of all citizens.”

National gay rights groups hailed the decision as another plank of protection for same-sex couples and marriage equality.

‘The Scoopess has an opinion; If you’re going to be in business expect to provide equal service to all citizens. If you provide a service provide it equally and don’t discriminate. If you want to discriminate don’t provide a service to the public. It’s really pretty simple stuff.’