Supreme Court won’t overturn ruling against business that refused service for gay weddings

The Supreme Court on Friday declined to wade into the contentious issue of whether businesses have a right to refuse service for same-sex wedding ceremonies despite state laws forbidding them from discriminating on the basis of sexual orientation.

The court dodged the wedding question three years ago in a case involving a Colorado baker who said baking a cake to celebrate a same-sex marriage would violate his right of free expression and religious beliefs. The issue came back in an appeal brought by Barronelle Stutzman, owner of Arlene’s Flowers and Gifts in Richland, Washington.

The court said Friday that it would not take up her appeal, leaving the state court rulings against her intact and again ducking the hot-button issue. Justices Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito and Neil Gorsuch said the court should have taken the case.

Masterpiece Cakeshop owner Jack Phillips decorates a cake inside his store in Lakewood, Colo., on March 10, 2014.Brennan Linsley / AP file

Stutzman refused to provide flowers for the wedding of two longtime male customers in 2013, explaining that as a Southern Baptist, it would violate her religious beliefs and her “relationship with Jesus Christ.” Like the Colorado baker, she said her floral arrangements were works of art and that having to create them for same-sex weddings would trample on her freedom of expression.

The florist’s lawyer, Kristen Waggoner of the Alliance Defending Freedom, said other judges have ruled in favor of businesses claiming that they cannot be forced to create works that violate their religious beliefs.

“We are confident that the Supreme Court will eventually join those courts in affirming the constitutionally protected freedom of creative professionals to live and work consistently with their most deeply held beliefs,” she said.

Robert Ingersoll, who requested the flowers for his wedding ceremony, praised the Supreme Court for denying the florist’s appeal. He said he hopes the court’s action “sends a message to other LGBTQ people that no one should have to experience the hurt that we did.”

Ria Tabacco Mar, an American Civil Liberties Union lawyer who represented the gay couple, said the denial is a reminder that “no one should walk into a store and have to wonder whether they will be turned away because of who they are. 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 LGBTQ people like the kind in Washington State. Our work isn’t over.”

Supporters on both sides of the case line a walkway following a hearing before Washington’s Supreme Court about a florist, Barronelle Stutzman, who was sued for refusing to provide services for a same sex-wedding on Nov. 15, 2016, in Bellevue, Wash.Elaine Thompson / AP file

State courts ruled that Stutzman broke a Washington law forbidding businesses to discriminate on the basis of several factors, including sexual orientation. The Washington Supreme Court said providing or refusing to provide flowers for a wedding “does not inherently express a message about that wedding.”

After ducking the issue in the Colorado case, the U.S. Supreme Court sent Stutzman’s case back for another round in the Washington courts, where she lost a second time and again appealed.

“Religious people should be free to live out their beliefs about marriage,” her lawyers said in urging the Supreme Court to hear the case. They said states have taken action against calligraphers, videographers and other business that refuse to serve same-sex weddings because of their religious beliefs.

“These First Amendment violations must stop,” they said.

But the ACLU, representing Washington state, said Stutzman is not required to participate in any actual same-sex wedding ceremony.

The state also told the court that the florist refuses to prepare any flower arrangement for the wedding of a gay or lesbian couple, even if the arrangement is identical to one the shop’s employees would prepare for a heterosexual couple.

“It is thus clear that their objection is not to any ‘message’ sent by the flowers themselves, but rather to the message they perceive would be sent by serving a gay couple,” lawyers for the state said.

The ACLU said courts have repeatedly ruled that there is no right to be exempt, on religious freedom grounds, from general laws that are not enacted to disfavor religious beliefs.

“All people, regardless of status, should be able to receive equal service in American commercial life,” it said.