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Alliance Alert

Sep 13, 2019

No, Washington, Attorneys General Are Not Above the Law

Barronelle Stutzman is a great-grandmother, devout Christian, and a small business owner. And, if the state of Washington gets its way, she stands to lose just about everything she owns—simply because she believes marriage is between one man and one woman and runs her business accordingly.

Barronelle’s story might seem familiar—she has been entangled in an ongoing legal battle since 2013. She serves anyone who comes into her shop; she just can’t participate in or create custom floral art for every event—particularly those celebrating sacred ceremonies that violate her faith.

In 2013, a customer Barronelle had served for close to a decade asked her to create a custom floral arrangement for his same-sex wedding. She respectfully declined and recommended three other local floral artists she knew would do a good job. But almost immediately, her state’s attorney general—acting without an official complaint—concocted a one-of-a-kind lawsuit against Barronelle, suing her both as business owner and as an individual.

Her case made it to the U.S. Supreme Court last summer, where justices sent the case back to the Washington Supreme Court for reconsideration in light of its Masterpiece Cakeshop decision.

Yet, the Washington Supreme Court did not follow the U.S. Supreme Court’s guidance. Much of the court’s opinion repeated verbatim what it previously said in the decision that the U.S. Supreme Court vacated. One look at the Constitution and existing court decisions (including the Masterpiece decision) shows just how wrong that line of reasoning is.

Now, Alliance Defending Freedom is once again asking the U.S. Supreme Court to decide Barronelle’s case on behalf of her and all Americans.

Let’s take a look.

Back in June, we looked at the details of Barronelle’s second time before the Washington Supreme Court and that court’s narrow-minded decision. We also looked at why the U.S. Supreme Court needs to take Barronelle’s case in order to clarify the freedom all Americans enjoy from government-compelled speech.

Now, Alliance Defending Freedom has officially brought Barronelle’s case back to the U.S. Supreme Court with a petition filed on Wednesday, September 11.

The brief makes it abundantly clear why the Supreme Court must hear the case:

In Obergefell’s wake, government officials continue to disregard civility and punish “reasonable and sincere” people of faith like Barronelle because of their beliefs about marriage. This violates the First Amendment’s promise that citizens are free “to differ as to things” such as marriage and religion “that touch the heart of the existing order.” Unless this Court intervenes, that freedom will be gone, and people like Barronelle will be marginalized in their own communities.

The brief continues:

In Masterpiece, this Court said that religious beliefs affirming marriage as the union of a man and a woman “are protected views and in some instances protected forms of expression,” and that the government must treat those beliefs with “toleran[ce]” and “respect.” Despite this call for civility, governments across the country have continued to slur, shun, punish, and threaten to imprison those whose faith compels them to honor their religious beliefs about marriage.

Barronelle serves all customers; she simply declines to create art that expresses messages or celebrates events in conflict with her deeply held beliefs. And for Barronelle, weddings are a unique creative engagement: from the initial consultations that inform her creative expression to attending and participating in the ceremony, her services are intertwined with the sacred event.

So when a favored customer whom she’d served almost a decade, Rob Ingersoll, asked her to use her art to celebrate his same-sex union, she knew that was one thing she could not do: use her talents to celebrate any wedding other than of one man and one woman. To do so would violate her relationship with Jesus Christ.

So with his hand in hers, she gently explained her beliefs to Rob and referred him to three nearby florists she knew would do a good job. Then they chatted as Rob told her all about his engagement and upcoming wedding, and they parted with a hug. If Rob came back into her shop today, Barronelle says she would gladly serve him and his partner just as she did before the case began.

But when Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson got wind of her decision through social media, he used unprecedented tactics to punish Barronelle. The fact that neither he nor any other government official had received a formal complaint didn’t stop him from targeting Barronelle, and all along he has demonstrated a shocking double-standard.

The ADF Supreme Court petition states:

Barronelle’s compassionate response epitomizes how Americans with differing marriage beliefs can peacefully coexist. While Robert is free to celebrate his and Curt’s marriage, Barronelle should be equally free to practice her art without betraying the faith that inspires it. Instead, the State brought all its power down on Barronelle, seeking to compel her to create art against her conscience. The Attorney General concocted a one-of-a-kind lawsuit, prompting others to threaten and harass her. Yet the Attorney General did not investigate, demand assurances, or file suit when a gay coffee-shop owner berated and booted a group of Christians from his store based on religious views they expressed on a public street.

And while the now-public situation ended up to the benefit of the two men—who said they got enough free flowers to get married “20 times” over—Barronelle was not spared.

The Attorney General kept his promise. His office sent Barronelle a certified letter demanding that she take part in same-sex wedding ceremonies or give up her wedding business. If she refused to sign an Assurance of Discontinuance, the office would take formal action. Barronelle declined the ultimatum, so the Attorney General sued Arlene’s Flowers and Barronelle personally. Never before in the history of the State’s Consumer Protection Act (“CPA”) had the Attorney General pursued a CPA claim based on a violation of the Washington Law Against Discrimination (“WLAD”). Even though the Attorney General’s Office usually refers WLAD complaints to the Washington State Human Rights Commission, it bypassed the Commission here.

Working with the Attorney General, Robert and Curt filed a similar lawsuit, and the two cases were effectively consolidated. After the Attorney General’s highly publicized lawsuit, Barronelle was inundated with “hate-filled phone calls, emails, and Facebook messages” that contained profanity, attacks on her faith, and “explicit threats against [her] safety, including a threat to burn down [her] shop.” Six years later, she remains in litigation that could cost her nearly everything she owns.

Washington is clearly favoring one viewpoint over the other. While overlooking the coffee shop owner’s dramatic bigotry toward Christian customers, the state has sought to bankrupt Barronelle’s award-winning small business, putting almost every penny she owns at risk in the process.

With this second petition, the Supreme Court has a chance to resolve this mess properly. The Court should make clear that Masterpiece applies to all branches of government, not just “adjudicatory bodies” like Washington argues. And it should tackle the key legal issue left open in Masterpiece: Whether the First Amendment protects the freedom of Americans to express different views about topics as fundamental as marriage.

ADF Senior Vice President of U.S. Legal Division Kristen Waggoner (who argued Barronelle’s case in the Washington Supreme Court and the Masterpiece case before the U.S. Supreme Court) highlighted the important nature of this case:

Barronelle serves and hires people from all walks of life. What she can’t do is take part in, or create custom floral arrangements celebrating, sacred events that violate her religious beliefs. Because of this, the Washington Supreme Court upheld a ruling that threatens Barronelle with personal and professional ruin. Regardless of what one believes about marriage, no creative professional should be forced to create art or participate in a ceremony that violates their core convictions. That’s why we have taken Barronelle’s case back to the U.S. Supreme Court.

The decision before the Supreme Court is clear: It’s time to stand up for the right that all Americans have to peaceably disagree and live out their faith in the public square.

  • Supreme Court of the United States
  • religious freedom
  • free speech
  • Arlene's Flowers
  • Friday Feature
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