Lambda Legal Raises Alarm over Supreme Court Order Reversing Washington Religious Exemptions Decision That Enforced State Nondiscrimination Law

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June 25, 2018

The U.S. Supreme Court today decided to overturn the unanimous decision of the Washington Supreme Court ruling that a Richland, WA florist had violated the Washington Law Against Discrimination when she refused to sell flowers to a same-sex couple for their wedding.

The Court ordered the case sent back to the Washington court for reconsideration in light of its narrow ruling in Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Human Rights Commission finding in favor of a Colorado baker who refused to sell a wedding cake to a same-sex couple.

Lambda Legal Senior Counsel and Law and Policy Director Jennifer C. Pizer issued the following statement:

Today’s decision is immensely frustrating and disappointing. Just as in the Masterpiece Cakeshop case decided three weeks ago, the Supreme Court should simply have reaffirmed longstanding constitutional principles that freedom of religion is not a license to discriminate. Laws requiring businesses to be open to all do not conflict with the Constitution. It is past time to put to rest these proliferating attempts to undermine the civil rights of LGBT people in the name of religion.

This order is particularly troubling given the narrow, fact-specific nature of the Masterpiece ruling. Unlike in Masterpiece, the florist in this action – Arlene’s Flowers, Inc. v. Washington – had no plausible basis for claiming there was hostility to her religious beliefs among those deciding her case. There is no genuine need for reconsideration of the Washington Supreme Court’s well-reasoned, unanimous application of key constitutional principles.

Indeed, in Arlene’s Flowers, the Washington Court stressed that ‘this case is no more about the access to flowers than the civil rights cases were about access to sandwiches.’ We are confident that the Washington Court will once again rule in favor of equality and non-discrimination, but it is a travesty that the US Supreme Court did not simply end this case today.

The U.S. Supreme Court sent the case back for the Washington courts to take another look in light of the decision in Masterpiece without saying the Washington courts erred. Although the florist’s lawyers assert that there was hostility to her religious beliefs from the fact that the state enforced its nondiscrimination law, there is no evidence of hostility towards religious beliefs in the case.

To the contrary, the state courts consistently recognized that religious views are protected, though they do not justify discrimination by a commercial business.

Arlene’s Flowers is one of several current cases in which opponents of LGBT equality have challenged anti-discrimination statutes through demands for religious and free speech exemptions from civil rights laws.

Days after the Masterpiece Cakeshop ruling came down, the Arizona Court of Appeals ruled that a Phoenix, AZ, stationary store cannot exempt itself from the Phoenix nondiscrimination ordinance. In Hawai`i, the owner of a B&B who refused to rent a room to Lambda Legal clients, a lesbian couple, has petitioned the Hawai`i Supreme Court.

And in Oregon, a bakery that refused to serve other Lambda Legal clients, a local same-sex couple, has announced it will seek U.S. Supreme Court review, following the Oregon Supreme Court’s refusal just last week to hear its further appeal.

Arlene’s Flowers v. Washington began as a lawsuit filed by a gay couple – Robert Ingersoll and Curt Freed – against Arlene’s Flowers after the owner, Baronelle Stutzman, refused to create floral arrangements for their wedding. The State of Washington followed with its own lawsuit against the business charging it with violating the Washington Consumer Protection Act. And, in a third lawsuit, Stutzman filed her own lawsuit against Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson. The cases were consolidated into Arlene’s Flowers v. Washington.

Lambda Legal submitted a friend-of-the-court brief to the Washington Supreme Court in this case, with co-counsel Dan Shih and Lindsey Godfrey Eccles of the Susman Godfrey LLP law firm. Disability Rights Washington, El Centro de la Raza, National Asian Pacific American Bar Association, PFLAG Seattle, Pride Foundation, QLaw Association of Washington, South Asian Bar Association of Washington and Washington Women Lawyers joined the brief.