U.S. Supreme Court sends Richland florist case back to state

Demonstrators at Supreme Court in Arlene’s Flowers case

Supporters for both Barronelle Stutzman, owner of Arlene's Flowers, and gay plaintiffs Robert Ingersoll and Curt Freed made their voices heard after Tuesday's court hearing.
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Supporters for both Barronelle Stutzman, owner of Arlene's Flowers, and gay plaintiffs Robert Ingersoll and Curt Freed made their voices heard after Tuesday's court hearing.

The U.S. Supreme Court has sent the case of a Richland florist accused of discriminating against a gay couple back to the Washington state Supreme Court to consider again.

The order on the Arlene's Flowers case was expected in light of the recent ruling in the Masterpiece Cakeshop case in Colorado, said Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson.

The nation's highest court ruled May 4 in favor of a Christian baker who refused to make a wedding cake for a same-sex couple. But it passed on deciding the big issue in the case — whether a business can invoke religious objections to refuse service.

It's the same question at the heart of the case involving Richland shop owner Barronelle Stutzman, 73, who refused to create flower arrangements for the wedding of same-sex couple Robert Ingersoll and Curt Freed because of her religious beliefs.

Baronelle Stutzman
The U.S. Supreme Court has sent the case of Richland florist Barronelle Stutzman, owner of Arlene's Flowers in Richland, accused of discriminating against a gay couple, back to the Washington State Supreme Court to consider in light of its recent Colorado bakeshop ruling.

The state Supreme Court will evaluate the case in light of the Masterpiece Cakeshop case and decide if it has any effect.

"I am confident they will come to the same conclusion they did in their previous, unanimous ruling upholding the civil rights of same-sex couples in our state," Ferguson said.

He and the couple sued Stutzman in early 2013.

In a Monday telephonic news briefing with Alliance Defending Freedom, Stutzman said she is very thankful and grateful that the country's high court has allowed her case to continue.

"The state of Washington has targeted me for over five years, and I find that I am here today because my state Attorney General is hostile to my religious beliefs," said Stutzman.

"I serve every customer that comes into my shop, but the government is trying to force me to create artistic expression that violates my beliefs," she continued.

"My faith guides me to treat everyone with respect and love, and I've done my best to live out those beliefs in my business. I have never turned anyone away no matter who they were or what they believed," she said.

Stutzman said she served Ingersoll for nearly a decade, and in that time created dozens of unique custom arrangements for him.

It did not bother her then or now that he is gay, she said, and the owner would gladly welcome Ingersoll back into her shop as a customer.

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"I opted out of participating in just one event in 10 years because Scripture teaches me that marriage is between a man and a woman," Stutzman said. "Rob has the freedom to act on his beliefs about marriage. I am only asking for that same freedom. This just isn't about my freedom; it's about everyone's freedom."

"If the government can tell you about what events you must celebrate or take away all you own if you decline to violate your faith, then we don't live in a free America," she added. "Wherever you stand on the issue of marriage, we can all agree to stand for our freedoms."

Ingersoll sees it differently.

"No one should have to experience the hurt that we did," he said in a statement Monday. "Curt and I now live our lives on-guard in a way that we didn’t before we were turned away from Arlene’s Flowers. No one should have to experience that, and we’re hopeful the Washington courts will again recognize that this case is clearly about discrimination, which has no place in the public marketplace or in our Constitution.”

The state Supreme Court ruled that Stutzman violated the state's anti-discrimination law and the Consumer Protection Act. She appealed the ruling to the U.S. Supreme Court, which now has "wiped out" the state's decision.

"The U.S. Supreme Court has rightfully asked the Washington Supreme Court to reconsider Barronelle's case in light of the Masterpiece Cakeshop decision," said Kristen Waggoner, a senior attorney with the Alliance Defending Freedom, which represents both the Colorado baker and Stutzman.

"In that ruling, the U.S. Supreme Court denounced government hostility toward the religious beliefs about marriage held by creative professionals," she said.

The state of Washington, acting through its attorney general, has shown similar hostility, she said.

Ferguson has been relentless, vindictive and his actions unprecedented for the state of Washington by naming Stutzman personally in the lawsuit, instead of just going after her business, she added.

Waggoner, in the news conference, said tolerance is a two-way street and hostility has no place in our society.

"If we want to have freedom ourselves, we must extend it to others," she said.

Stutzman stopped creating wedding flowers five years ago not only because the court ordered her to do so, but she was "getting a number of false requests trying to engender more claims against her," Waggoner said.

The attorney said they expect to know within 30 days whether the Washington Supreme Court will remand Stutzman's case to Benton County Superior Court or if the justices will hear the arguments.

"We expect the Washington courts to follow the law. Masterpiece provided very clear guidelines for Washington courts to do so," she said.

And if Stutzman loses again, they will go back to the U.S. Supreme Court.


Arlenes building
Arlene's Flowers store on Lee Boulevard in Richland.

Gov. Jay Inslee said he's confident the state will prevail.

"Unlike the recent decision in the Colorado case, in Washington there was never any indication of religious bias or hostility in our pursuit to protect consumers from discrimination," he said in a statement. "Washington will remain a place where members of the LGBTQ community can live, work and raise families without fear of discrimination."

The Supreme Court justices’ limited ruling turned on what the court described as anti-religious bias on the Colorado Civil Rights Commission when it ruled against Colorado baker Jack Phillips.

The justices voted 7-2 that the commission violated Phillips’ rights under the First Amendment.

When the justices heard arguments in the case in December, Justice Anthony Kennedy was plainly bothered by comments by a member of the Civil Rights Commission that ruled against the baker.

James Esseks, director of the American Civil Liberties Union's LGBT and HIV Project, drew a distinction between what happened in Colorado and the Arlene's Flowers case.

"To be clear, the court made no indication the lower courts ruled incorrectly and made no decision on the case’s merits," he said.

He noted the U.S. Supreme Court said, “Our society has come to the recognition that gay persons and gay couples cannot be treated as social outcasts or as inferior in dignity and worth … The exercise of their freedom on terms equal to others must be given great weight and respect by the courts.”