Arlene’s Flowers owner vows to fight on after justices say she discriminated against gay couple

A Richland flower shop’s owner broke the law when she refused to design arrangements for a same-sex wedding in 2013, the state’s high court ruled.

The decision Thursday by the Washington state Supreme Court came after the justices took another look at the case in light of the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in a separate, but similar, matter involving a Colorado baker who refused to make a wedding cake for a gay couple.

The Thursday ruling affirms the Washington court’s 2017 unanimous opinion — that Barronelle Stutzman violated the state’s anti-discrimination law and the Consumer Protection Act by declining to provide services based on sexual orientation.

Stutzman, 74, immediately vowed to once again take her fight back to the country’s highest court.

She was sued by the gay couple, Robert Ingersoll and Curt Freed, and separately by Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson.

The two lawsuits have worked their way up from Benton County Superior Court to the state Supreme Court, and ultimately to the U.S. Supreme Court, which remanded it back to Washington state.

Reviewed record for intolerance

“We have painstakingly reviewed the record for any sign of intolerance on behalf of this court or the Benton County Superior Court, the two adjudicatory bodies to consider this case,” the state Supreme Court said in its 76-page opinion, signed by all nine justices.

“After this review, we are confident that the two courts gave full and fair consideration to this dispute and avoided animus toward religion. We therefore find no reason to change our original decision in light of Masterpiece Cakeshop (of Colorado).”

Barronelle Stutzman
Barronelle Stutzman, the owner of Arlene’s Flowers, broke anti-discrimination laws when she refused to design flowers for a same-sex wedding, the state Supreme Court has ruled. Tri-City Herald file

Stutzman issued a statement during a telephone news conference with Alliance Defending Freedom, which will petition the U.S. Supreme Court for a second time to hear the Arlene’s Flowers case.

While not surprised by the newest decision, Stutzman said she was deeply disappointed to learn the state’s justice did not budge in their earlier position.

Stutzman said her faith guides her to treat everyone with respect and love, and she has done that through her business. A Southern Baptist, she has argued that arranging flowers is artistic expression protected under the First Amendment.

Yet, she said, Ferguson has targeted her for more than six years, been openly hostile through the judicial process and vilified her and her faith instead of respecting her religious beliefs about marriage.

“Rob (Ingersoll) has the freedom to act on his beliefs about marriage, and I am only asking for the same freedom about religion,” said Stutzman, talking about the longtime customer who wanted Arlene’s Flower to make arrangements for his wedding.

‘Fight to protect Washingtonians’

Meanwhile, Ferguson praised the decision Thursday.

“Washington state law protects same-sex couples from discrimination based on their sexual orientation, the same way it protects Washingtonians from discrimination based on their religion, veteran or military status, disability, race and other protected classes,” Ferguson said in a statement. “I will continue to uphold these laws and fight to protect Washingtonians from discrimination.”

AG Bob Ferguson.JPG
Washington State Attorney General Bob Ferguson Elaine Thompson AP

The American Civil Liberties Union represents the gay couple in “seeking to vindicate their right to access goods and services at businesses open to the public.”

Michele Storms, executive director of ACLU-WA, said they were pleased that the state’s justices recognized the Colorado case decision “does not give people a license to use religion to discriminate. Religion is a fundamental right, but businesses open to the public must be open to all.”

Couple: ‘Discrimination hurts’

Freed and Ingersoll, in a statement released by ACLU-WA, said they were thrilled the court reaffirmed its ruling in the couple’s favor.

“Discrimination hurts, especially while planning what should be one of the happiest times of your life,” the couple said. “We hope that this ruling will prevent what happened to us from happening to others.”

Robert Ingersoll and Curt Freed sued Stutzman in a case that went to the state Supreme Court, where justices ruled that Baronelle Stutzman of Arlene’s Flowers in Richland violated the state’s anti-discrimination law and the Consumer Protection Act.

U.S. Supreme Court justices returned the case to the state court last June “for further consideration” in light of the federal ruling in favor of the Colorado baker.

In the Masterpiece Cakeshop ruling, justices didn’t decide the case’s larger issue — which also is at the heart of the Arlene’s Flowers case — of whether a business can use religious objections to refuse services to LGBTQ people.

But they did find that the Colorado Civil Rights Commission was hostile to the Christian baker’s religion in that instance.

Flowers for upcoming wedding

The Tri-Cities case dates to 2013, when Ingersoll asked Stutzman to create flower arrangements for his upcoming wedding to Freed. Ingersoll had been a customer of the Lee Boulevard flower shop for years.

Stutzman refused, citing her religious beliefs about marriage.

Arlene’s Flowers
Arlene’s Flowers on Lee Boulevard in Richland. Tri-City Herald file

The lawsuits filed by Ingersoll and Freed and the Attorney General’s Office state that Stutzman violated anti-discrimination law and consumer protection laws.

Judge Alex Ekstrom with Benton County Superior Court agreed, ruling in 2015 that Stutzman broke the law.

Stutzman appealed to the state Supreme Court, which made its ruling in February 2017. She then appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which ultimately sent the case back to the state.

Kristin M. Kraemer covers the judicial system and crime issues for the Tri-City Herald. She has been a journalist for more than 20 years in Washington and California.