In Our View: Court affirms that beliefs not license for bigotry

The U.S. Supreme Court last week declined to hear the case of a Washington florist who refused service for a wedding between two men. In the process, the court tacitly affirmed the basic right to equal service for all, a fundamental aspect of American society.

But the justices also did something else. They highlighted the holes in continuing debates about religious freedom and the misguided belief of many Christians that they are being persecuted by an unwelcoming society.

Undoubtedly, the case will become a cause célèbre for the religious right. Kristen Waggoner, a lawyer for Richland florist Barronelle Stutzman, called the outcome of the case “tragic” and 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.”

That argument is shortsighted, as are claims in similar cases that religious freedom extends to the refusal of services based on sexual orientation. Indeed, many people are opposed to gay marriage, which is legal throughout the United States. Those people are entitled to their beliefs, but those beliefs are not a license for bigotry.

The fundamental question is this: Does a florist or a baker or a photographer offer services for the weddings of divorced people or fornicators or idolaters? Do they ask whether a potential client has ever cheated on a spouse, or whether they have children out of wedlock? Those things also violate Christian beliefs, but until vendors begin questioning such aspects of a customer’s life, claims of religious freedom ring hollow.

Divorced people have been getting remarried for a long time, but it seems that religious freedom as it relates to wedding services has become an issue only since gay marriage was legalized. That makes it difficult to argue that the issue truly is about religious beliefs rather than discrimination.

In the case that originated in Richland, Stutzman in 2013 declined to provide flowers for the wedding of a longtime customer. The state of Washington determined that to be discriminatory and fined her $1,000.

The state Supreme Court unanimously upheld that determination, and in 2018 the U.S. Supreme Court declined to review the case but ordered the state to review whether anti-Christian bigotry was involved. The state had ruled that selling flowers for a gay wedding was no more of an endorsement of homosexuality than providing services for an Islamic or an atheist wedding.

In June, the state Supreme Court affirmed the earlier decision, and last week the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear Stutzman’s appeal, ending the legal wrangling.

In other cases, the U.S. Supreme Court has upheld arguments made on religious grounds. A baker in Colorado won his case when the court determined that a state ruling inequitably targeted him for his Christian beliefs. And this year the justices unanimously ruled in favor of a Catholic foster care agency that declined to work with same-sex couples as potential parents.

There are, indeed, cases where Christians may be guided by their religious beliefs in offering or refusing services. The case of Arlene’s Flowers was not one of those.

As Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson said: “This case was about establishing — once and for all — that businesses cannot discriminate against Washingtonians on the basis of whom they love.”

That is a victory for all residents of the state.