By Lawrence Hurley
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – After siding with a baker who refused to make a wedding cake for a gay couple, the U.S. Supreme Court on Monday sent back to lower courts a similar dispute over a florist who declined to create flower arrangements for a same-sex wedding based on her Christian beliefs.
The justices threw out a 2017 ruling by Washington state’s Supreme Court that Barronelle Stutzman, owner of Arlene’s Flowers in the city of Richland, about 200 miles (320 km) southeast of Seattle, had violated the state’s anti-discrimination law and a consumer protection measure.
The court ordered the top Washington state court to revisit the case in light of its ruling on June 4 in favor of Colorado baker Jack Phillips, who similarly cited his Christian beliefs in refusing to make a wedding cake for a gay couple.
Stutzman in 2013 refused to provide the arrangements to Robert Ingersoll and Curt Freed, who were getting married after the state legalized same-sex marriage the prior year. She was hit with a $1,000 fine and directed to make floral arrangements for same-sex weddings if she does so for opposite-sex weddings.
In the baker case, the court ruled that a Colorado state commission had showed hostility to religion in violation of his religious rights under the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment. The state court will now re-examine Stutzman’s case for any evidence of anti-religious bias.
Stutzman’s lawyers argue that such bias existed, noting that the state did not take action against the gay owner of a Seattle coffee shop who threw out anti-abortion activists. The activists said they were discriminated against because of their religious views.
Washington state Attorney General Bob Ferguson has said there is no evidence of hostility against religion in Stutzman’s case.
The Supreme Court’s 7-2 ruling in favor of Denver-area baker Jack Phillips left significant legal issues unresolved that the justices potentially could have addressed had they taken up the florist case.
Washington state’s Supreme Court last year rejected Stutzman’s argument that forcing her to create floral arrangements for a same-sex wedding would violate her free speech rights under the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution and would be tantamount to endorsing same-sex marriage.
Stutzman, a member of the Southern Baptist denomination, has said she believes marriage should be exclusively between a man and a woman.
The couple was shocked and hurt by Stutzman’s refusal, stopped planning for a big wedding and decided to have a small wedding at their home, the ACLU said.
The state and the couple sued Stutzman in 2013, accusing her of violating the state anti-discrimination and consumer protection laws. A trial judge ruled against her in 2015, prompting the state Supreme Court to review the case.
In the baker ruling, the court’s five conservatives were joined by two liberals in issuing a narrow decision written by Justice Anthony Kennedy limited to the facts in that particular case.
Like the baker, Stutzman is represented by the conservative Christian group Alliance Defending Freedom, while the gay couples in both cases are represented by the American Civil Liberties Union.
Making the same argument that they did in the baker case, Stutzman’s lawyers said creating flower arrangements is a form of creative expression protected by the First Amendment and that she should not be forced to deliver a message through her work that she disagrees with.
Stutzman’s lawyers said she has had gay employees and was friendly with Ingersoll, who had been a long-time customer, before refusing to create the wedding floral arrangements.
(Reporting by Lawrence Hurley; Editing by Will Dunham)