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.
The unanimous ruling by the nine-member state Supreme Court, which a lawyer for the florist said would be appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, addressed sweeping questions about public accommodation, artistic expression and free speech.
But at its heart was a very human story about Arlene’s Flowers in the small city of Richland, in southeast Washington, and what happened there in 2013 when Robert Ingersoll and Curt Freed started planning their wedding. The shop’s owner, Barronelle Stutzman, knew that Ingersoll and Freed were gay and had sold them flowers for years, but then refused to provide flowers for their wedding. Her Christian faith, which defined marriage as between a man and a woman, created a line, she said, that she could not cross.
But in affirming a lower court’s finding, the Supreme Court said flatly that it agreed with the couple — flowers were not really the point.
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.
A lawyer for Stutzman, Kristen Waggoner, said the court had erred both in interpreting the law and in the specifics of the case. The same-sex couple were not refused service because they were gay, Waggoner said, but only turned away for a specific ceremony that Stutzman could not abide because of the dictates of her conscience. Voters in Washington approved a same-sex marriage law in 2012.