SCOTUS Punts on Florist's Religious Liberty
The Court ordered Washington State to reconsider the case of Barronelle Stutzman.
On Monday the U.S. Supreme Court vacated a unanimous Washington State Supreme Court ruling that a florist violated the state’s anti-discrimination laws by refusing on religious grounds to provide a floral arrangement for a same-sex wedding. The High Court ordered Washington’s court to rehear the case in light of its recent decision in favor of a Colorado baker who refused to create a customized wedding cake for a same-sex wedding.
In Arlene’s Flowers v. Washington, shop owner Barronelle Stutzman was sued by the state of Washington and two homosexual men who solicited her services. One of the men was a longtime customer of Stutzman. When he asked her to create a floral arrangement for his wedding to his male partner, she respectfully refused. Stuztman said that creating the floral arrangement for a same-sex wedding violated her freedom of expression and ran counter to her religious beliefs. She offered to sell the customer a pre-arranged setting or loose flowers. She even gave him the names of other florists who could provide the services he sought. But that wasn’t good enough.
Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson sought to make an example of Stutzman, dragging her through an expensive legal battle that could shut down her business. Ferguson was true to form of the typical leftist crusader. He was not content to live and let live; he wanted to force Stutzman to comply, accept and even celebrate something that ran counter to her beliefs.
This is very similar to what happened to Colorado baker Jack Phillips, who was persecuted for his religious views in refusing to create a special cake for a same-sex wedding. As with Stutzman, providing something off the shelf was not good enough for Phillips’s customers or the Colorado state authorities. They wanted him to play ball or face the threat of having his business destroyed.
The Supreme Court ruled 7-2 in Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission that the state of Colorado had been particularly hostile to Phillips’s religious views. The justices declined, however, to go deeper and establish a broad definition of what constitutes infringement on religious liberties or freedom of speech and whether that infringement justifies the refusal to provide specially created goods or services. Instead, the majority pointedly noted that the decision applied to Phillips alone.
That being said, it seems hard to imagine that the Washington state court will rule any differently in rehearing Stutzman’s case. So, it is a distinct possibility that the Supreme Court has not heard the last of her.
In Stutzman’s favor, though, is the fact that the Supreme Court in Masterpiece and Arlene’s Flowers has made clear that states must neutrally apply antidiscrimination laws. Religious objections to what someone views as compelled speech cannot be viewed differently than other types of compelled speech.
That is a major distinction that the media deliberately leaves out in reporting these cases. The public is left with the perception that Phillips and Stutzman are deliberately discriminating against homosexuals by refusing them service altogether. That is not the case.
“I think the worst part is when they say I won’t serve gay people,” Stutzman has said. “That’s just not true. I’ve never discriminated against anyone in my life.”
These business owners are trying to protect their artistic expression under the First Amendment. For now, the Supreme Court is letting the lower courts search for a solution that will protect these people from running afoul of antidiscrimination laws. That will only work so long as certain states don’t try to use those laws to wedge the public into accepting viewpoints that violate their religious or moral values. It’s one thing to allow same-sex marriage; it’s another entirely to force people who object to provide specific artistic services in celebration of it.