A Washington florist violated the state’s anti-discrimination law when she denied a same-sex couple wedding services on the basis of her faith, the state Supreme Court ruled Thursday.
The case drew national attention in 2013 when the couple sued Arlene’s Flowers for refusing to provide flowers for their wedding. As state bans on same-sex marriage were crumbling and more couples were seeking wedding services, it was one of several high-profile legal challenges to arise from the backlash to marriage equality.
The unanimous decision upholds a lower court ruling. With marriage equality now the law of the land, the ruling joins a growing body of case law rejecting business owners’ claims of first amendment protections as grounds for discrimination, said Elizabeth Gill, the ACLU’s senior staff attorney and co-counsel for the couple.
“It sends a really strong message that for the state of Washington inclusion and acceptance is incredibly important,” she said. “It’s an important contribution to the growing body of case law that rejects the idea that people operating in the public space can discriminate.”
Curt Freed and Robert Ingersoll got engaged in December 2012, shortly after Washington began recognizing same-sex marriages. Longtime patrons of Arlene’s Flowers in Richland, they approached owner Barronelle Stutzman about arrangements for their wedding.
Stutzman, an ardent evangelical, denied their request saying she could not support a wedding that her faith forbids.
“I was not discriminating at all,” she told CNN in 2013. “I never told him he couldn’t get married. I gave him recommendations for other flower shops.”
The couple sued along with the state attorney general. She was vilified by some and celebrated by others who viewed her as a freedom fighter.
In addition to first amendment protections, Stutzman argued that no real harm came from her refusal because other florists were available and willing to serve the couple.
The judges rejected both claims. They sided with Ingersoll and Freed’s argument that their case was about more than access to flowers, just as civil rights cases of the 1960s were about more than access to sandwiches.
“As every other court to address the question has concluded, public accommodations laws do not simply guarantee access to goods or services. Instead, they serve a broader societal purpose: eradicating barriers to the equal treatment of all citizens in the commercial marketplace.”
Stutzman faces fines but her business remains open. The couple said they went forward with the wedding with tempered enthusiasm because of the experience.
“We’re thrilled that the Washington Supreme Court has ruled in our favor. The court affirmed that we are on the right side of law and the right side of history,” Freed and Ingersoll said in a statement.
“We felt it was so important that we stand up against discrimination because we don’t want what happened to us to happen to anyone else. We are so glad that we stood up for our rights.”