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Written by Don Byrd

In a closely watched case involving a florist’s refusal to provide services for a same-sex wedding, the Washington State Supreme Court has rejected her claim of a religious exemption from state law. The Washington Law Against Discrimination (WLAD), which prohibits public accommodations from discriminating on the basis of sexual orientation.

Charged with violating that law, the proprietor of Arlene’s Flowers, Barronelle Stutzman, claimed that her refusal to provide service is protected by provisions of federal and state law including the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment, and the religious free exercise guarantee in the Washington Constitution (Article 1, Section 11).

The state constitutional provision arguably provides even greater religious liberty protection (strict scrutiny)  than the First Amendment, but the Washington Supreme Court determined that it need not decide that question because Stutzman’s claim, they held, would fail either way. The Court seemed to particularly take issue with her argument that enforcing the law against her religious beliefs is unnecessary because plenty of other vendors are available to serve the customer (Robert Ingersoll).

Here is an excerpt from that portion of the opinion (citations removed):

To be sure, none of our previous article I, section 11 cases addressed an antidiscrimination law. But numerous other courts have heard religious free exercise challenges to such laws and upheld them under strict scrutiny. Indeed, we are not aware of any case invalidating an antidiscrimination law under a free exercise strict scrutiny analysis.

Nevertheless, Stutzman argues that strict scrutiny is not satisfied in this case. She reasons that since other florists were willing to serve Ingersoll, no real harm will come from her refusal. And she maintains that the government therefore can’t have any compelling interest in applying the WLAD to her shop. In other words, Stutzman contends that there is no reason to enforce the WLAD when, as she puts it, “[N]o access problem exists.”

We emphatically reject this argument. . . . As every other court to address the question has concluded, public accommodations laws do not simply guarantee access to goods or services. Instead, they serve a broader societal purpose: eradicating barriers to the equal treatment of all citizens in the commercial marketplace. Were we to carve out a patchwork of exceptions for ostensibly justified discrimination, that purpose would be fatally undermined. 

The Alliance Defending Freedom announced they will appeal this ruling to the U.S. Supreme Court.