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State Supreme Court rules Richland flower shop discriminated against gay couple by refusing wedding service

The Richland floral shop owner sued over her refusal to make arrangements for a longtime customer’s same-sex wedding had an offer to settle the litigation two years ago by paying a penalty and agreeing not to discriminate in the future.

Barronelle Stutzman, owner of Arlene’s Flowers, declined because her “freedom isn’t for sale.”

On Thursday, after losing her appeal before Washington’s highest court, the 72-year-old grandmother vowed to take her fight to the U.S. Supreme Court.

“You can’t buy me off. You can’t destroy me and everything I’ve worked for, and everything I believe in,” Stutzman said during a telephone conference following the ruling.

The state Supreme Court issued a unanimous decision that Stutzman violated the state’s anti-discrimination law and the Consumer Protection Act by declining to provide services based on sexual orientation.

It affirmed the 2015 ruling by Judge Alex Ekstrom in Benton County Superior Court.

Ekstrom had sided with state Attorney General Bob Ferguson and the plaintiffs, Robert Ingersoll and Curt Freed, both of whom filed lawsuits against Stutzman and her corporation in 2013 shortly after the refusal. The judge also awarded $1,001 in penalties and costs to the state.

Stutzman had asked for direct review by the state Supreme Court. She’s said the civil cases could end costing her the business, her life savings and retirement funds, and her family home.

Hundreds of people packed the Bellevue College theater on Nov. 15 when attorneys argued before the state Supreme Court.

Seattle lawyer Michael Scott lauded the court’s “one voice” decision Thursday, saying it took great courage for clients Ingersoll and Freed to stand up for the rights of all LGBT people.

Scott — who represents the couple on behalf of the American Civil Liberties Union — said their case is not only about principles, but about human beings and the moments in their lives that are most important to them.

The decision “upholds a core value of American law. That core value is the essential human dignity of every person,” Scott said in a news conference. “The opinion affirms over a century, an unbroken century of precedent, prohibiting discrimination in places of public accommodation.”

Laws against discrimination protect everyone in this diverse society, including Ingersoll and Freed, based on their sexual orientation, and Stutzman, based on her religion, Scott added.

“These laws ensure that all of us can participate equally and with dignity in commerce and our civil society,” he said.

Ferguson added that it’s a “complete, unequivocal victory for equality.”

Arlene’s Flowers is not required to sell wedding flowers. But if the business chooses to do so, it is required to sell flowers equally to all protected classes, including sexual orientation, race and religion, Ferguson said.

Floral arrangements not protected free speech

Supreme Court Justice Sheryl Gordon McCloud, in the 59-page opinion, said the conduct for which Stutzman was cited and fined constitutes sexual orientation discrimination under the Washington Law Against Discrimination.

That law may be enforced against the shop owner because it does not infringe any constitutional protection, she wrote.

“As applied in this case, the WLAD does not compel speech or association,” Gordon McCloud concluded.

“And assuming that it substantially burdens Stutzman’s religious free exercise, the WLAD does not violate her right to religious free exercise under either the First Amendment or (the Washington Constitution) because it is neutral, generally applicable law that serves our state government’s compelling interest in eradicating discrimination in public accommodations.”

Stutzman, a Southern Baptist, has said she declined her services not because of the couple’s sexual orientation, but because of her religious views on marriage. She argued that arranging flowers is artistic expression protected under the First Amendment.

However, the court held that floral arrangements don’t constitute protected free speech, and that providing custom flowers and related customer service would not be an endorsement of marriage equality for same-sex couples.

“Stutzman acknowledged that selling flowers for an atheistic or Muslim wedding would not be tantamount to endorsing those systems of belief,” Gordon McCloud wrote.

The justice noted that the florist draws a distinction between creating arrangements and selling bulk flowers and raw materials. Stutzman said she would have been more than happy to sell prearranged flowers out of the cooler because it was not custom expression.

Headlines around the country

The floral request by Ingersoll came two months after Washington began recognizing freedom to marry for gay couples. Ingersoll and Freed had envisioned a large wedding, but said they became fearful other vendors would have a similar response, so they married at home before about 10 people.

The closely watched case has made headlines around the country. It also is one of several lawsuits — including some involving bakers — about whether businesses can refuse to provide services over causes they disagree with, or whether they must serve everyone equally, according to the Associated Press.

A Colorado case involving a baker who would not make a wedding cake for a same-sex couple is pending before the U.S. Supreme Court, according to Lambda Legal. In 2014, the court declined to hear an appeal of a case out of New Mexico that went against a photographer who denied a same-sex couple service, the Associated Press reported.

Stutzman’s lawyers with Alliance Defending Freedom said she acted consistently with her faith, but Washington justices “concluded that the government can force her — and, by extension, other Washingtonians — to create artistic expression and participate in events with which they disagree.”

‘This case is about crushing dissent’

Attorney Kristen K. Waggoner said government was formed to be freedom’s greatest protector, not its greatest threat. She noted that while Ingersoll and Freed were able to get wedding flowers from other Tri-City businesses, Stutzman’s freedom and everything she owns has been targeted relentlessly by the state and the ACLU.

“This case is about crushing dissent. In a free America, people with differing beliefs must have room to coexist,” Waggoner said in the telephone press conference. “It’s wrong for the state to force any citizen to support a particular view about marriage or anything else against their will. Freedom of speech and religion aren’t subject to the whim of a majority; they are constitutional guarantees.”

Waggoner said she hopes the ninth justice, nominee Neil Gorsuch, will be on the U.S. Supreme Court bench when Arlene’s Flowers comes up for review.

She added that it’s because of issues like Stutzman’s that people are calling on President Donald Trump to sign an executive order regarding religious freedom, but said it will not specifically protect her client in this case.

Stutzman, who has owned the Lee Boulevard shop for 40 years, described the state Supreme Court’s opinion as terrifying.

“When you think that the government is coming in telling you what to think and what to do … we should all be very, very scared,” she said.

Stutzman said Ingersoll was her customer for 10 years, she enjoyed working with him and she misses him coming in to her shop.

She said she knew Ingersoll was gay and it meant no difference to her, but she chose not to participate in one event in his life because Stutzman’s faith teaches her marriage is between a man and a woman.

“Rob can certainly believe what he would like to do on marriage, and has the right to do that,” she said. “I’m just asking for the same right.”

In appealing to the nation’s high court, Stutzman said she hopes the justices will follow the U.S. Constitution.

“You know, it’s not just my freedom, it’s everybody’s freedom,” she said.

In light of the litigation, Arlene’s Flowers has stopped doing wedding services, which comprised about 3 percent of the business.

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee said the Supreme Court decision favors equality for all Washingtonians.

“By ruling that intolerance based on sexual orientation is unlawful, the court affirmed that Washington state will remain a place where no one can be discriminated against because of who they love,” his statement said.

“I am proud that our state was one of the first to vote to recognize same-sex marriage and that we continue to uphold the rights of all our residents.”

Kristin M. Kraemer: 509-582-1531, @KristinMKraemer

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