The debate over religion and business practices made its way to the Pacific North West in this high-profile case between two friends.
A court ruling handed down on Thursday determined that a Seattle florist violated anti-discrimination laws when the owner refused to provide flowers for a same-sex wedding.
The Seattle Times reports, In a unanimous decision, the court found that Arlene’s Flowers in Richland, WA., discriminated against gay couple Rob Ingersoll and Curt Freed, when the owner, Barronelle Stutzman said she could not provide floral arrangements to the gentleman because of her religious beliefs which included opposition to gay marriage.
Instead, Stutzman offered the two men a list of other flower shops which would best serve their needs.
The couple eventually exchanged nuptials, but on a smaller scale with flowers from another florist and a guest list of only eleven.
Attorney General Bob Ferguson represented the couple who filed a lawsuit against Stutzman, claiming that she violated the state’s anti-discrimination and consumer protection laws.
The core of the case became whether or not business owners had the right to refuse service to customers based upon their personal religious beliefs and if those actions were considered a form of free speech.
The Supreme Court heard those arguments last November during a special session.
In Ingersoll v. Arlene’s Flowers, attorneys for the defendant argued floral arrangement was a form of speech which should be protected and therefore non-publishable by refusing to support a same-sex wedding.
However, Ferguson, representing the plaintiff, asked the court to uphold anti-discrimination laws and not make an exception, as in this case, based on someone’s religious convictions.
He reminded the court that in the past, interracial marriages were refused because of religious sanctimony, but high courts ruled to strike down those laws as discriminatory.
Last February a Benton County Superior Court judge agreed that Stutzman’s religious beliefs should not be used to discriminate and she must provide her services to same-sex couples, or discontinue her business.
Stutzman's attorneys reiterated that floral arrangement is a form of creative expression and the court’s ruling was unlawful government coercion.
“So anyone worried about their expression may deny services to a customer?” asked Justice Steven Gonzales.
Ferguson wrote a letter to Stutzman asking her to comply with the state’s non-discriminatory laws regarding same-sex couples, but she refused and Ferguson filed a suit.
In court, Ferguson said the case does raise some interesting questions, but none that should focus on denying a gay customer services since non-discrimination laws are already in place.
He also said that no court in the country has ruled in favor of a business owner violating an anti-discrimination law because of religous reasons.
“Ms. Stutzman is free to believe what she wishes,” he said. Adding that those beliefs should not interfere with how she runs her business.
Several supporters of Arlene’s Flowers filed amicus briefs which stated that the government should not punish a business owner if said owner believes a marriage should be between one man and one woman.
Citing the 2015 SCOTUS marriage equality ruling the briefs contend, “its ruling in no way requires private citizens to facilitate such marriages against their conscience … Mrs. Stutzman seeks the freedom to act on her reasonable, conscientious belief about marriage — while leaving same-sex couples free to do the same.”
In 2015, Stutzman wrote an opinion piece for The Seattle Times which stated that she and the plaintiff were once good friends, but that was fractured because he forced her to make a choice.
She wrote: "Marriage does celebrate two people’s love for one another, but its sacred meaning goes far beyond that. Surely without intending to do so, Rob was asking me to choose between my affection for him and my commitment to Christ. As deeply fond as I am of Rob, my relationship with Jesus is everything to me. Without Christ, I can do nothing."
Timothy Rawles is Community Editor of SDGLN. He can be reached at [email protected], @reporter66 on Twitter, or by calling toll-free to 888-442-9639, ext. 713.