The Story: On Monday, the U.S. Supreme Court sent a high-profile religious liberty case back to the lowers courts for review.
The Background: For many years, Barronelle Stutzman sold flowers to Rob Ingersoll, a man she considered both a favorite customer and also a friend. But because of her religious views on same-sex marriage, the septuagenarian owner of Arlene’s Flowers & Gifts politely declined to arrange flowers for Ingersoll’s wedding. “As deeply fond as I am of Rob, my relationship with Jesus is everything to me,” Stutzman said. “Without Christ I can do nothing.”
Ingersoll claimed Stutzman was discriminating against him because of his sexual orientation, so the Washington state attorney general initiated proceedings against the florist, and the ACLU brought a lawsuit against Stutzman on behalf of the couple.
A state trial court found Stutzman violated the state law prohibiting sexual-orientation discrimination and awarded fines, damages, and attorney’s fees against her. The Washington state Supreme Court agreed. Stutzman stands to lose her business, her home, and her life savings to pay the fines and the attorney’s fees for the two men who sued her.
Stutzman had filed a petition for review in the U.S. Supreme Court, asking that it be heard alongside Masterpiece Cakeshop, a similar case of a Colorado baker who had refused on religious grounds to make a custom wedding cake for a same-sex couple. The justices refused to hear the cases together and instead put Stutzman’s appeal on hold until they ruled on the Masterpiece decision.
Three weeks ago the Court ruled in a 7-2 decision that the actions by the Colorado Civil Rights Commission discriminated against Jack Phillips, a Christian baker and owner of Masterpiece Cakeshop, who refused to create a custom cake for a same-sex wedding. Yesterday, the Court vacated the judgment against Stutzman and sent her case back to the Supreme Court of Washington for “further consideration in light of” the Masterpiece ruling.
What It Means: According to Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), a Christian legal group that specializes in religious liberty and that represents both Phillips and Stutzman, the Supreme Court’s order does three things:
1. It granted Stutzman’s petition.
2. It wiped out the Washington Supreme Court’s judgment against her.
3. It sent her case back to the Washington courts and instructed them to reconsider the case in light of the Supreme Court’s decision in Phillips’s Masterpiece Cakeshop case.
In their ruling on Masterpiece Cakeshop, the justices said the Colorado Civil Rights Commission’s consideration of this case was “inconsistent with the State’s obligation of religious neutrality.” When the Colorado Civil Rights Commission considered this case, the Supreme Court said, it did not do so with the religious neutrality that the Constitution requires.
ADF’s senior vice president of U.S. legal division Kristen Waggoner, the lawyer who argued on Stutzman’s behalf before the Washington Supreme Court in 2016 and for Phillips before the U.S. Supreme Court, says the cases are similar. “In [the Masterpiece] ruling, the U.S. Supreme Court denounced government hostility toward the religious beliefs about marriage held by creative professionals like Jack and Barronelle,” Waggoner said. “The state of Washington, acting through its attorney general, has shown similar hostility here.”
Waggoner points out that Attorney General Ferguson failed to prosecute a business that berated and discriminated against Christian customers. In contrast, ADF says, Ferguson has “steadfastly—and on his own initiative—pursued unprecedented measures to punish 73-year-old Stutzman not just in her capacity as a business owner but also in her personal capacity, threatening her personal assets, including her life savings.”
After Ferguson obtained a court order allowing him to collect on Stutzman’s personal assets, he publicized a letter offering to settle the case for $2,001. In exchange, he demanded that Stutzman give up her religious and artistic freedom. Stutzman responded, “It’s about freedom, not money. I certainly don’t relish the idea of losing my business, my home and everything else that your lawsuit threatens to take from my family, but my freedom to honor God in doing what I do best is more important.”
It’s unclear how the Washington high court will apply the Masterpiece ruling to Stutzman’s case. But ADF promises that if the Washington Supreme Court continues to uphold the hostility to Stutzman’s religious freedom, they will once again appeal the case to the U.S. Supreme Court.