Courtroom interior_newWritten by Don Byrd

A trial court judge in Washington State has ruled against a florist charged with violating state anti-discrimination law for refusing to provide services to a same-sex couple. Arlene’s Flowers owner Barronelle Stutzman argued her federal and state religious freedom rights protected her because she objects to same-sex marriage on religious grounds. The judge disagreed.

As to the First Amendment defense, the judge noted that “the Free Exercise Clause is not without its limits. Religious motivation does not excuse compliance with . . . a valid and neutral law of general applicability.” Because the judge found the anti-discrimination law at issue to be valid, neutral and generally applicable, the federal Free Exercise defense was rejected.

More interesting was the judge’s discussion of the state’s religious freedom law, which provides greater protection than the U.S. Constitution. Similar to the statutory language of RFRA laws, Washington law allows a substantial burden on free exercise only when necessary to further a compelling interest. Here, the judge found the law preventing discrimination arguably does not substantially burden the religious exercise of  the owner of Arlene’s Flowers, but that even if it did, the state has a compelling interest in prohibiting discrimination, which the law is necessary to address.

From the opinion (citations removed):

Even assuming a substantial burden, the [plaintiffs] are correct that the compelling interest test is met. Compelling interests are “those governmental objectives based upon the necessities of national or community life such as threats to public health, peace, and welfare.” The Defendants’ (sic) claim that “combatting discrimination” is too broad an interest to be compelling. The Defendants are incorrect. The State’s compelling interest in combatting discrimination in public accommodations is well settled. The [U.S.] Supreme Court stated over thirty years ago . . . that public accommodation laws protect a state’s citizens from “a number of serious social and person harms,” and  characterized the injuries flowing therefrom as “stigmatizing.”

The judge likewise rejected the florist’s argument that the law is not necessary to achieve its goal because it could be accomplished by allowing objecting vendors to simply refer same-sex customers to other providers. Such an approach, the judge countered, would “defeat the purpose of combatting discrimination, and would allow discrimination in public accommodations based on all protected classes, including race.”

Opponents of RFRA legislation often argue that the law will allow religious freedom arguments to trump anti-discrimination provisions like the one in Washington State. It is a “license to discriminate,” they often say. Interpreting Washington’s religious freedom law using a standard similar to RFRA, however, the judge in the Arlene’s Flowers case demonstrates that is not the case. Here, the judge found combatting discrimination to be a compelling interest, and laws preventing vendors from discriminating to be an acceptably narrow means of achieving it.