The Washington Supreme Court on Thursday ruled that a florist who refused to provide flowers to a gay couple violated a state law that bars discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.
In a unanimous ruling, the nine members of the court sided with a gay couple from Kennewick, Wash., who sued a local florist for discrimination. The florist, a devout Southern Baptist, told the couple she could not provide flowers for their wedding because of her religious beliefs.
The florist, Barronelle Stutzman, said she believes participating in or allowing her employees to participate in same-sex weddings by providing flowers would be condoning same-sex marriage, counter to her religious beliefs. A lower court judge sided with the couple and fined Stutzman $1,001 in penalties.
Stutzman appealed, marking the first time the nondiscrimination law reached the state Supreme Court in Olympia. “Discrimination based on same-sex marriage constitutes discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation,” Justice Sheryl Gordon McCloud wrote for the court. The court said the state’s anti-discrimination law does not unduly burden the florist’s free exercise of religion.
Gay rights groups and the American Civil Liberties Union, which sued on behalf of the couple, hailed the ruling as a win for nondiscrimination ordinances that have passed in 19 states.
“This was a reasonable application of a state non-discrimination law. It’s consistent with the way that states and frankly the federal government have applied non-discrimination law across time,” said Sarah Warbelow, legal director at the Human Rights Campaign.
But religious conservatives said the ruling trampled on Stutzman’s right to religious expression.
“The Washington State Supreme Court’s ruling tramples on our nation’s long-held tradition of respecting the freedom of Americans to follow their deeply held beliefs, especially when it comes to participating in activities and ceremonies that so many Americans consider sacred,” said Tony Perkins, head of the Family Research Council. “The time to protect religious freedom is now.”
Stutzman could appeal the decision to the U.S. Supreme Court, though her attorneys did not immediately say whether they would continue the case.
The verdict comes as legislatures in Republican-dominated states consider new measures that would allow businesses, and in some cases government agencies, to refuse service to gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people.
States including Texas, Kentucky, Missouri and South Carolina are considering legislation that would prohibit cities or counties from requiring private entities to allow transgender people to use bathrooms and locker rooms of their choice. States including Virginia, Oklahoma, Illinois and Alabama are considering bills that would allow businesses to refuse service to same-sex couples, such as in situations similar to the Washington case.
More than 70 pieces of legislation dealing with discrimination ordinances have been introduced in nearly two dozen states, according to the Human Rights Campaign.