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Washington state's top court rules against Christian florist who refused gay wedding

The unanimous decision by Washington state’s top court could set up a potential clash over gay and religious rights at the U.S. Supreme Court.
Image: Curt Freed, Robert Ingersoll
Curt Freed, left, and his husband Robert Ingersoll pose for a photo after a hearing before Washington's Supreme Court, Tuesday, Nov. 15, 2016, in Bellevue, Washington.Elaine Thompson / AP file

Washington state’s top court ruled for a second time on Thursday that a Christian florist discriminated against a same-sex couple by refusing to sell them flowers for their wedding, setting up a potential clash over gay and religious rights at the U.S. Supreme Court.

In a unanimous decision, the Washington Supreme Court’s nine justices said that Barronelle Stutzman, owner of Arlene’s Flowers in Richland, Washington, violated a state anti-discrimination law by refusing service to Robert Ingersoll and Curt Freed, for their marriage in 2013.

Image: Barronelle Stutzman
Barronelle Stutzman, center, a Richland, Washington, florist who was fined for denying service to a gay couple in 2013, looks around as she is surrounded by supporters after a hearing before Washington's Supreme Court on Nov. 15, 2016, in Bellevue, Washington.Elaine Thompson / AP file

Stutzman, a member of the Southern Baptist denomination, believes that marriage should be exclusively between a man and a woman. Her lawyers vowed an immediate appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.

The state court previously ruled against Stutzman in 2017, but was ordered to reconsider the case after the nation’s highest court last year sided with a Colorado baker who refused to make a wedding cake for two men, citing religious beliefs.

That ruling was narrow and did not resolve the constitutional issues raised, instead finding that the Colorado Civil Rights Commission did not handle the case appropriately.

On Thursday, Washington high court said it reviewed Stutzman’s case and found it was handled neutrally and “avoided animus toward religion.” It again rejected Stutzman’s argument that arranging flowers for a same-sex wedding would violate her free speech rights under the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment and would be tantamount to endorsing same-sex marriage.

John Bursch, an attorney with the Alliance Defending Freedom, a conservative legal group that represented Stutzman, said the state has been hostile toward her religious beliefs. “We look forward to taking Barronelle’s case back to the U.S. Supreme Court,” he said.

Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson said he will continue to uphold the state’s anti-discrimination laws.

Litigation challenging the scope of protection for gay rights has mounted since the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision legalizing same-sex marriage in 2015 and tests whether people can claim religious or freedom-of-expression exemptions from anti-discrimination laws.

The justices are currently weighing whether to take up a case that echoes the Colorado dispute involving an appeal by Christian bakery owners in Oregon who were fined for refusing a wedding cake for a lesbian couple.

The Supreme Court has a more solidly conservative 5-4 majority since President Donald Trump’s appointee Brett Kavanaugh joined the bench last October, replacing Justice Anthony Kennedy, a conservative who often voted with his liberal counterparts on divisive social issues.