Supreme Court Turns Down Appeal in Clash Between Florist and Gay Couple

The justices let stand a gay couple’s victory against a florist who said her religious beliefs did not allow her to create floral arrangements for same-sex weddings.


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WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court announced on Friday that it would not hear an appeal from a florist in Washington State who said she had a constitutional right to refuse to create a floral arrangement for a same-sex wedding. The move left open a question the court last considered in 2018, when a similar dispute between a Colorado baker and a gay couple failed to yield a definitive ruling.

As is its custom, the court did not give reasons for declining to hear the case, which social conservatives had hoped the justices would use to make a clearer statement favoring religious beliefs over gay rights. Justices Clarence Thomas, Samuel A. Alito Jr. and Neil M. Gorsuch said they would have granted the florist’s petition seeking Supreme Court review.

Lower courts have generally sided with gay and lesbian couples who were refused service, ruling that they are entitled to equal treatment, at least in parts of the country with laws forbidding discrimination based on sexual orientation.

The owners of businesses challenging those laws have argued that the government should not force them to choose between the requirements of their faiths and their livelihoods, citing constitutional protections for free speech and religious liberty.

The case concerning the florist, Arlene’s Flowers v. Washington, No. 19-333, started in 2013, when Barronelle Stutzman turned down a request from a longtime customer, Robert Ingersoll, to provide flowers for his wedding to another man, Curt Freed. Ms. Stutzman said her religious principles did not allow her to do so.

She said she should not have to participate in same-sex weddings, which had been recognized in Washington the previous year.

“Since 2012, same-sex couples all over the state have been free to act on their beliefs about marriage,” Ms. Stutzman wrote, “but because I follow the Bible’s teaching that marriage is the union of one man and one woman, I am no longer free to act on my beliefs.”

The couple and the state both sued, and they won in the state courts.

The Washington Supreme Court ruled in 2017 that Ms. Stutzman had violated a state antidiscrimination law by refusing to provide the floral arrangement. “This case is no more about access to flowers than civil rights cases in the 1960s were about access to sandwiches,” the court said, quoting from the plaintiffs’ brief.

After the United States Supreme Court’s muddled decision in the Colorado case, the justices sent the florist’s case back to the Washington Supreme Court for a fresh look. In 2019, that court again ruled for the couple, saying that Ms. Stutzman did not have a constitutional right to ignore a state law prohibiting businesses open to the public from discriminating on the basis of sexual orientation. It added that it had seen no religious bias in the consideration of the case.

In the Colorado case, Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission, Justice Anthony M. Kennedy’s majority opinion turned on the argument that the Colorado Civil Rights Commission, which originally ruled against the baker, had been hostile to religion, based on the remarks of one of its members.

In the new Washington case, lawyers for the florist said the state’s lawsuit against her was itself evidence of impermissible religious bias. “The state acted with hostility by targeting Barronelle’s religious beliefs for punishment,” they wrote in their petition seeking Supreme Court review.

Mr. Ingersoll said his encounter with Ms. Stutzman had left lasting pain.

“After Curt and I were turned away from our local flower shop,” he said, “we canceled the plans for our dream wedding because we were afraid it would happen again. We had a small ceremony at home instead. We hope this decision sends a message to other L.G.B.T.Q. people that no one should have to experience the hurt that we did.”

Ria Tabacco Mar, a lawyer with the American Civil Liberties Union, which represents the couple, welcomed Friday’s development but said there was more work to be done.

“No one should walk into a store and have to wonder whether they will be turned away because of who they are,” she said. “Preventing that kind of humiliation and hurt is exactly why we have nondiscrimination laws. Yet 60 percent of states still don’t have express protections for L.G.B.T.Q. people like the kind in Washington State.”

Kristen K. Waggoner, a lawyer with Alliance Defending Freedom, which represented Ms. Stutzman, also said there was more work to do. “Although the outcome of this case is tragic,” she said, “the critical work of protecting the First Amendment freedoms of all Americans must continue. No one should be forced to express a message or celebrate an event they disagree with.”

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