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SCOTUS Punts Case on Florist Who Refused to Serve Same-Sex Couple

Barronelle Stutzman
Barronelle Stutzman

LGBT advocates are hopeful that a lower court decision that ruled against the antigay business will be upheld.

The U.S. Supreme Court has sent the case of a florist who refused to serve a same-sex couple's wedding back to the state court for review -- but did not say the state ruled wrongly in finding the florist committed unlawful discrimination, leading LGBT advocates to say it's likely the state will again rule that the florist committed unlawful discrimination.

The case involves Arlene's Flowers in Richland, Wash. Owner Barronelle Stutzman in 2013 refused to provide flowers for Robert Ingersoll and Curt Freed 's wedding, even though they were longtime customers of her shop, citing her "relationship with Jesus Christ." The couple sued, and state courts, including the Washington Supreme Court, found that she had violated state antidiscrimination law. Stutzman, represented by the anti-LGBT Alliance Defending Freedom, appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.

The high court today issued an unsigned opinion ordering the state Supreme Court to review its ruling in light of the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling in Masterpiece Cakeshop, Ltd. v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission, CNN reports. The commission had found that Masterpiece owner Jack Phillips broke state antidiscrimination law by refusing to provide a cake for a same-sex couple's wedding, and state courts upheld that ruling. But the U.S. Supreme Court sent the case back for reconsideration, finding the commission had shown hostility to Phillips's religious views, but it did not create a blanket license to discriminate and it even cited the need to prevent antigay discrimination.

Because the federal high court did not indicate that Washington courts erred in any way in the Arlene's Flowers rulings, LGBT rights advocates were optimistic that the state Supreme Court would again rule that Stutzman had no right to discriminate.

"We are confident that the Washington State Supreme Court will rule once again in favor of the same-sex couple, and reaffirm its decision that no business has a right to discriminate," said James Esseks, director of the American Civil Liberties Union's LGBT and HIV Project, in a press release; the ACLU represents the couple. "Our work to ensure LGBT equality is the law and the norm in all 50 states will continue."

In the same release, Ingersoll said, "No one should have to experience the hurt that we did. 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 Supreme Court has simply asked the lower court to take another look at this case in light of their recent decision in Masterpiece, but they did not indicate there was anything wrong with the ruling," said a statement issued by Human Rights Campaign legal director Sarah Warbelow. "In Masterpiece, the Supreme Court found that the state of Colorado's enforcement of its civil rights law was flawed due to perceived bias in the process, however, there is no indication that there were flaws in the application of civil rights law in Arlene's Flowers. We view this decision as encouraging news that justice will prevail and the Washington State Supreme Court will again uphold the state's nondiscrimination laws ensuring LGBTQ people cannot be turned away from a business open to the public."

"Opponents of LGBTQ equality have asked the Supreme Court for a constitutional right to discriminate against LGBTQ people, and the court has refused to do so on two separate occasions -- first in Masterpiece, and now in Arlene's Flowers," said Masen Davis, CEO of Freedom for All Americans, in a press relase. "Earlier this month, the Supreme Court reaffirmed our nation's long-standing promise of equal opportunity for all, making clear that all business owners and all customers should be treated with respect. The Washington Supreme Court ruling in Arlene's Flowers unanimously upheld that very same promise, and we are confident that they will continue to do so."

But University of Texas Law School professor Steve Vladeck, a CNN legal analyst, told CNN that the U.S. Supreme Court's action could lead to differences among lower courts regarding religious objections to antidiscrimination laws. He said the high court was "effectively leaving it to those courts, in the first instance, to sort out just how broad or narrow" the decision in the Masterpiece decision was. "In the process, it's quite possible that this one-sentence order will open the door to serious disagreements among the lower courts over when and under what circumstances business owners can refuse to serve same-sex couples," he continued.

The U.S. Supreme Court could simply have let the Washington ruling stand as is. But it also could have decided to hear Stutzman's appeal, which "might have set off alarm bells in the LGBT community," CNN notes.

Meanwhile, the Alliance Defending Freedom, which also represented Masterpiece Cakeshop, is using today's ruling on the Arlene's Flowers case to raise funds for Stutzman's further defense. The order for the state Supreme Court to reconsider her case is "a pivotal moment," the group said on its website, arguing that a decision like its previous one "has no place in our country. Our nation has a long history of protecting the right of peaceful citizens to disagree. Yet the government is threatening Barronelle just because she has a different view on marriage than the state does. We must stand together as opponents of religious freedom continue to try to punish Christians for their faith."

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