Washington state court rules for gay couple in wedding flower case

By Eric DuVall  |  Feb. 17, 2017 at 12:14 PM
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Feb. 17 (UPI) -- In a case that could have broad legal implications for the country, the Washington state Supreme Court ruled 9-0 that a Christian florist could not use her faith to justify refusing service for a gay couple's wedding.

Lawyers for the defendant, Baronelle Stutzman, pledged they would appeal the case to the U.S. Supreme Court.

The case began in 2013 in the city of Richland, Wash., when a gay couple, Robert Ingersoll and Curt Freed, contacted Stutzman, owner of Arlene's Flower Shop, to provide flowers for their wedding. Though Stutzman knew the couple were gay and had sold them flowers before, she refused to do so for the nuptials, saying her Christian faith restricted marriage to between a man and a woman and participating in the ceremony would violate her religious beliefs.

The case as constructed has wide implications not just for gay couples, but business regulation and artistic expression under the First Amendment. The most obvious part of the ruling, legal experts said, was that it extends protected class status to same-sex couples.

Washington state Attorney General Bob Ferguson, who argued the case on behalf of the gay couple, celebrated the court's unanimous decision.

The ruling, he told The New York Times, makes "sexual orientation ... a protected class -- just like race, just like religion."

The justices drew on the civil rights era debate over segregated and whites-only lunch counters to rule in the couple's favor.

"[This case] is no more about access to flowers than civil rights cases in the 1960s were about access to sandwiches," the justices wrote in a 59-page decision. "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."

Stutzman's legal team defended her actions on the grounds she is entitled under the First Amendment to reserve artistic expression -- defined in this case by her creation of floral arrangements, which they argued requires artistic creativity -- for causes that do not violate her religious beliefs. In other words, they argued Stutzman should not be required to make art to celebrate a cause she does not share.

The justices rejected that argument, saying even if the creation of a floral arrangement constitutes artistic expression, the act of selling a bouquet is not art and is thus not a protected form of expression under the First Amendment.

After the ruling, Kristen Waggoner, a lawyer for Stutzman, said the justices' interpretation should concern all Americans because of its broad implications on free speech.

"All creative professional expression is at risk," Waggoner said.

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