Arlene’s Flowers owner wants U.S. Supreme Court to review discrimination ruling

Barronelle Stutzman smiles as she is surrounded by supporters after a hearing Nov. 15, 2016, before Washington’s Supreme Court.
Barronelle Stutzman smiles as she is surrounded by supporters after a hearing Nov. 15, 2016, before Washington’s Supreme Court. AP

Barronelle Stutzman is taking the discrimination case against her Richland flower shop to the U.S. Supreme Court.

On Friday, Stutzman’s lawyers filed a petition with the nation’s highest court, asking the justices to review the February decision by the state Supreme Court.

When Stutzman lost her appeal at the state level, the 72-year-old grandmother said everything she has worked for and believes in couldn’t be destroyed and vowed to take her fight to Washington, D.C.

The state Supreme Court justices unanimously agreed that the owner of Arlene’s Flowers violated Washington’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.

Stutzman had refused to make arrangements for a longtime customer's same-sex wedding in 2013.

A Southern Baptist, she’s said she declined her services not because of Robert Ingersoll and Curt Freed’s sexual orientation, but because of her religious views on marriage. She argued that arranging flowers is artistic expression protected under the First Amendment.

Stutzman and her corporation were sued by both the American Civil Liberties Union, on behalf of the couple, and state Attorney General Bob Ferguson.

Michael Scott, the Seattle lawyer representing the ACLU, and the Attorney General’s Office did not respond Friday to requests for comment.

The shop owner is represented by Alliance Defending Freedom and George Ahrend of Ephrata.

“I’m not asking for anything that our Constitution hasn’t promised me and every other American: the right to create freely, and to live out my faith without fear of government punishment or interference,” Stutzman said in a news release from Alliance Defending Freedom.

In the February opinion, Supreme Court Justice Sheryl Gordon McCloud 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.

Friday, Stutzman’s attorneys said the U.S. Supreme Court should reverse that decision because no creative professional should be forced to participate in events with which they disagree.

“If the government can ruin Barronelle for peacefully living and working according to her faith, it can punish anyone else for expressing their beliefs,” Kristen Waggoner, Alliance Defending Freedom senior counsel, said in a prepared statement.

“The government shouldn’t have the power to force a 72-year-old grandmother to surrender her freedom in order to run her family business,” she added. “Anyone who supports the First Amendment rights that the U.S. Constitution guarantees to all of us should stand with Barronelle.”

Stutzman has said the civil penalties, damages and attorneys fees on the civil cases could end up costing her the business, her life savings and retirement funds, and her family home.

The 54-page petition to the high court said the breadth of the Washington justices’ reasoning is particularly hazardous because it extends to nearly all speech created for profit and “threatens to shutter her business and personally bankrupt her.”

“This court’s review is needed to prevent the state from silencing professional speech creators with dissenting religious views,” the petition says.

Stutzman hires LGBT employees and serves LGBT clients on a regular basis, including Ingersoll, with whom she had a “warm and friendly” relationship for more than nine years before his floral request.

“But part of Barronelle’s wedding business involves attending and facilitating the ceremony itself and Barronelle simply could not reconcile her faith with celebrating and participating in a same-sex wedding,” it says.

“Barronelle intends all of her custom floral designs to convey a message, but none more so than her original wedding arrangements …,” the petition says. “Through her distinctive floral designs, Barronelle celebrates the couple’s particular union, which requires not only that she invest herself creatively and emotionally in their wedding ceremony, but also that she dedicate herself artistically to memorializing and formalizing it in three-dimensional form.

“In sum, Barronelle is an artist with a conscience who cannot separate her artistic creativity from her soul. Her objection is not to any person or group with a particular sexual orientation but to creating expression that celebrates a view of marriage that directly contradicts her faith.”

Alliance Defending Freedom is also asking the U.S. Supreme Court to consolidate the Arlene’s Flowers case with one that the high court accepted in late June. That case of a Colorado baker, who refused to create a cake for a same-sex wedding reception, also is being handled by Alliance Defending Freedom.

Jack Phillips, a self-described “cake artist,” told the couple traveling to Massachusetts to get married in 2012 that he could bake something for the reception, just not a wedding cake. An administrative law judge and the Colorado Civil Rights Commission found he had violated that state’s anti-discrimination statute.

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