High Court rejects florist, gives hope to parents in Maine
WASHINGTON (BP) – Barronelle Stutzman’s lengthy legal effort to operate a florist in Washington state on her Christian beliefs ended Friday, July 2 in the United States Supreme Court.
Justices announced they would not consider appeal by Southern Baptist Stutzman of a 2019 Washington Supreme Court ruling that she was guilty of unlawful discrimination by refusing to design flowers for a same-sex marriage. The court order said three associate judges – Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito and Neil Gorsuch – would have granted a review in the case.
In another ecclesiastical case, however, the High Court said in orders on Friday that it would review a federal appeals court decision that upheld a Maine tuition assistance program that excludes exempt schools. denominational education.
The two orders, which were part of a list that closed the Supreme Court’s tenure, concerned cases in which the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC) had filed friend of the court briefs in support of First Amendment law. to free religious exercise.
“No one should have to go through what Barronelle Stutzman had to go through in this long legal saga,” Daniel Patterson, acting chairman of the ERLC, said in comments written for Baptist Press. “We have long hoped that the Supreme Court would step in to reprimand the decision of the Washington Supreme Court, which issued an opinion that displayed contempt for Barronelle’s faith.
“While we have hope for future cases in light of the court’s unanimous decision in Fulton, we are deeply disappointed that the judges seized this opportunity to right the true injustices committed in recent years.”
In their June 17 opinion, Fulton v. City of Philadelphia judges upheld the right of a faith-based adoption and foster care agency to minister according to its beliefs by agreeing that Philadelphia, Pa. Violated the First Amendment’s protection of liberty. exercise of religion by stopping references to Catholic social services because it does not place children with same-sex couples.
Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), which represented Stutzman in his case, called the High Court order tragic.
Kristen Wagoner, general counsel for ADF, said in a written statement: “A government that can crush someone like Barronelle, who has kindly served their gay client for nearly a decade but simply refused to create art celebrating a sacred ceremony, can use its power to crush all of us, regardless of our political ideology or our views on important issues like marriage. “
Contrary to the decision of the Washington Supreme Court, Wagoner pointed out the opinions of the Arizona Supreme Court and the St. Louis Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals “that the government cannot force the professionals of the creation to create artistic expression that violates their religious beliefs ”. She expressed confidence that the Supreme Court will ultimately agree with these courts regarding the religious freedom of florists and other artistic professionals.
The Washington Supreme Court has twice ruled against Stutzman, 76, owner of Arlene’s Flowers in Richland. After the state’s High Court ruled in 2017 that she had violated an anti-discrimination law, the United States Supreme Court overturned a lower court ruling against her the following year and asked the Washington Supreme Court to reconsider its previous decision in light of the judges’ new opinion. in favor of a Colorado baker who refused to design and decorate a cake to celebrate the marriage of two men. In this 7-2 decision, the High Court ruled that the Colorado Civil Rights Commission had violated the free religious exercise clause and demonstrated in its action “religious hostility” towards Jack Phillips, owner of Masterpiece Cakeshop.
The Washington Supreme Court, however, ruled in a unanimous decision in 2019, that neither it nor a lower court showed religious animosity towards Stutzman in opinions.
The case began in 2013, when Stutzman refused to design flowers for the same-sex marriage of a long-time client. She had served Robert Ingersoll, a homosexual, for almost 10 years and had become friends with him. She had also hired gay employees in her store. When Ingersoll asked her to design the flowers for her 2013 wedding to Curt Freed, Stutzman told her she couldn’t because using her artistic abilities to participate in the ceremony would violate her beliefs. She referred him to other florists in the area who would provide flowers for the wedding. The state, along with Ingersoll and Freed, filed a complaint.
The ERLC and other organizations filed briefs in 2017 and 2019 in support of Stutzman’s appeal to the United States Supreme Court. The ERLC honored Stutzman during her report to the 2015 SBC meeting in Columbus, Ohio, and she received a standing ovation from the messengers.
In the Maine School Choice case, the Supreme Court will rule on a Boston First Circuit Court of Appeals opinion that excluded schools that use tuition assistance from a tuition assistance program. funds to provide religious education and families who choose these schools.
The Maine School Choice program helps families in the state’s many small towns that do not operate high schools and the small number that do not have elementary schools. These districts are required to pay tuition fees up to a legal limit at a public or private school elsewhere at the parents’ choice.
To qualify for the program, private schools must be “non-sectarian,” a category that does not necessarily prohibit religious schools, according to the parents’ petition to the Supreme Court. The state’s Department of Education is examining the instruction used by a religious school to determine whether it promotes the faith with which it is identified and is therefore ineligible, according to a brief filed by the Christian Legal Society and joined by the ERLC and 12 other organizations.
The ERLC expressed its gratitude for the order of the Supreme Court.
“We argued for a simple, but vital principle in our coalition’s brief in court – families who use private schools should not be punished by the government because the education available is religious,” he said. Patterson said of the ERLC-approved brief. “A public place in a free society, such as that envisioned and protected by the founding documents of our nation, is a place where government serves everyone, without religious discrimination. “
The brief urged the Supreme Court to rectify the erroneous distinction drawn by the Court of First Instance between the identity of a religious school and the use of a benefit by a religious school. The free exercise of religion clause “offers no basis for distinguishing a recipient’s religious affiliation from his or her use of benefits,” the brief said before citing an eight-decade-old High Court opinion that the clause contains two ideas – “freedom to believe and freedom to act”.
Michael and Jonathan Whitehead’s father-son legal team – Southern Baptists who practice in the Kansas City area – represent Maine families in the case, as well as lawyers from the First Liberty Institute and the Institute for Justice.
The Whiteheads applauded the High Court’s decision to reconsider the opinion of the lower court and expressed hope that the judges will continue their trajectory over the rulings in Church and State affairs of the past four years. who affirmed equal access to programs of general public interest.
The case gives the High Court “a perfect opportunity to take the next logical step in this area of law,” Michael Whitehead said in a written statement. He said Supreme Court opinions in 2017 and 2020 indicated that the government “cannot discriminate against the” religious “status of being a church or religious school.”
Maine, Jonathan Whitehead said in the statement, said “it can still discriminate against the religious ‘use’ of public funds. The impetus of judicial precedents seems to be that the state cannot discriminate against religious status or usage. Free exercise means that religious actions must be protected, not just religious beliefs. “
Michael Whitehead is general counsel for the Missouri Baptist Convention. Jonathan Whitehead is a member of the ERLC Board of Directors.
The case is Carson v. Makin.