The Washington state Supreme Court in February unanimously upheld a lower court ruling that florist Barronelle Stutzman is guilty of discrimination because she declined to provide custom floral arrangements for a same-sex wedding in 2013.
Stutzman, a 72-year-old grandmother who is a devout follower of Jesus, is in danger of losing not only her business but also her personal assets because of her decision to operate her business according to her Biblical convictions.
“Make no mistake: This case is about crushing dissent,” said Kristen Waggoner in response to the ruling. Waggoner, senior counsel for Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), argued on Stutzman’s behalf before the court last November. “In a free America, there should be plenty of room for all of us to coexist. The government shouldn’t be using its authority and power to crush those who have a differing view on any subject. We shouldn’t be forced to express messages or celebrate religious ceremonies against our will. It’s un-American, and it’s unconstitutional.”
Stutzman, owner of Arlene’s Flowers, had served gay customer Rob Ingersoll for at least nine years. He and his partner, Curt Freed, had purchased many floral arrangements from the shop, and according to court documents, they considered the shop to be “[their] florist.”
But when Ingersoll approached Stutzman to provide flowers for their wedding, she declined, believing that providing her creative and artistic skill would be tantamount to endorsing same-sex marriage. She instead gave Ingersoll the names of other florists who might be willing to serve them. The following day, Freed posted a status update on Facebook expressing his disappointment, which led to media attention as well as offensive comments and threats to Stutzman’s shop.
The Washington attorney general’s office sent Stutzman a letter stating that she was in violation of the Washington Law Against Discrimination and ordering her to stop discriminating on the basis of sexual orientation. When she refused to comply, the state filed a complaint against her and her business. The trial court sided with the same-sex couple and the state. Now the state’s Supreme Court has upheld that ruling.
Response by some Christian leaders was swift. Franklin Graham said on Facebook: “I met Barronelle last summer in Olympia, Wash., and told her how proud I was of her for standing up for her Christian beliefs.” He added, “This case underscores the importance of every federal judicial appointment, including the U.S. Supreme Court. … Pray for President Donald J. Trump and Vice President Mike Pence to fill every court vacancy with God-fearing, constitutionalist judges who respect and defend our religious liberties and the rights of conscience.”
Jerry A. Johnson, president and CEO of National Religious Broadcasters, said of the court’s decision, “In the Land of the Free, government agents should not be given judicial cover to so coerce speech or compel citizens to participate in events contrary to the principles of their faith.”
RELIGIOUS LIBERTY OR FREEDOM OF WORSHIP?
In oral arguments before the court last November, Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson insisted that the case is all about public accommodations: “There is a difference, your Honors, between the freedom to believe and a freedom to act. Mrs. Stutzman, for her religious expression, is free to believe what she wishes. But when she engages in public accommodations, and avails herself of the protections and benefits that come with being a business, there are, of course, responsibilities that flow from that.”
Michael Scott, attorney for Ingersoll and Freed, claimed that the state law “does not burden the practice of Mrs. Stutzman’s religion. She is free to worship and pray and believe as she feels. But she is not free to engage in conduct that harms others.”
Those comments echo the now-familiar pattern of progressives who want to redefine religious liberty as “freedom of worship.” It’s as if they are saying to Christians, “You’re free to believe your (foolish, backward, bigoted) religious tenets, but you aren’t free to act accordingly.”
But actual religious liberty means the freedom to live according to your beliefs, not just to espouse them during a worship service.
Attorney David French, a staff writer for National Review, objected to the claim that Stutzman’s conduct harmed anyone. “The gay couple in this case had no trouble finding flowers,” French wrote. “Stutzman even recommended other florists who would have been happy to help them celebrate their wedding. So, given the absence of any real harm, the court said that the state had a compelling state interest in punishing the ‘independent social evil’ of discrimination toward a ‘broader societal purpose: eradicating barriers to equal treatment of all citizens in the commercial marketplace.’
“That’s it right there: the state religion. It reserves for itself the exclusive ability to name, define and eradicate ‘social evils,’ and Heaven help the individual citizen who disagrees.”
While some Christian leaders have spoken out boldly in defense of Stutzman and others who have been punished for living out their faith, many pastors and leaders have shied away from taking a stand, perhaps for fear of being labeled a bigot or a hater. Following the Washington court ruling, radio host, author and theologian Michael Brown took such leaders to task: “There is only one thing more appalling than the Washington Supreme Court’s 9-0 ruling against religious liberty today,” Brown said. “It is the silence of Christian leaders across America, leaders who choose convenience over confrontation, leaders who would rather be popular than prophetic, leaders who prefer the favor of people over the favor of God. Shame on these silent leaders.”
The next step for Barronelle Stutzman will be to ask the United States Supreme Court to reverse the Washington court’s ruling, according to Waggoner, the ADF attorney.
“No one should be forced to surrender their constitutional rights because they enter the marketplace,” Waggoner said. “Tolerance is, and needs to remain, a two-way street.”