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Washington State Supreme Court rules against florist who turned away gay couple

John Becker, of Silver Spring, Md., waves a rainbow flag in front of the U.S. Supreme Court in this file photo from June 2015. <br/> (Photo by Bill O’Leary/The Washington Post)

In a victory for gay rights advocates, Washington’s Supreme Court on Thursday ruled against a Christian florist who was fined by the state for refusing to provide flowers for a same-sex wedding.

The justices agreed with a lower court that Barronnelle Stutzman, owner of Arlene’s Flowers in Richland, Wash., violated a state civil rights law that bars discrimination in public businesses on the basis of sexual orientation. The court also ruled that the law does not infringe on her free speech.

The case is one of several involving Christian wedding vendors that have emerged in recent years amid a dramatic expansion of gay rights. Social conservatives have argued that the legalization of same-sex marriage, and the proliferation of state and local laws barring discrimination against people on the basis of sexual orientation, have led to a trampling of religious liberties. They contend that the government should not be forcing these vendors to contribute their artistic talents to same-sex ceremonies, which they oppose on religious grounds, and that the vendors might end up having to abandon their profession to avoid violating their religious beliefs.

But as in Washington, courts have largely sided with the couples and government officials who have called their actions unlawful discrimination.

The Alliance Defending Freedom, the Christian legal organization representing Stutzman, pledged Thursday to take the case to the U.S. Supreme Court.

“The Washington State Supreme Court’s ruling tramples on our nation’s long held tradition of respecting the freedom of Americans to follow their deeply held beliefs, especially when it comes to participating in activities and ceremonies that so many Americans consider sacred,” Tony Perkins, president of the conservative Family Research Council, said in a statement. He also called on President Trump to sign a draft executive order expanding the right of people of faith to exempt themselves from certain actions and laws.

Rights groups, meanwhile, cheered the decision as a rebuke against discriminatory behavior disguised as faith.

“Religious freedom is a fundamental part of America. But religious beliefs do not give any of us a right to ignore the law or to harm others because of who they are,” said Elizabeth Gill, staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union’s LGBT Project. “When people experience acts of discrimination, they feel that they are not full and equal members of our society, and we’re delighted that the Washington Supreme Court has recognized this.”

The ACLU represented Curt Freed and Robert Ingersoll, the gay couple whose desire for flowers for their wedding ceremony touched off this case.

Ingersoll had been a longtime friend and customer of Stutzman, and in 2012 had asked Stutzman to provide arrangements for his wedding ceremony. Stutzman declined, telling Ingersoll it would violate her Christian faith, and referred him to other florists. Ingersoll and Freed later sued, accusing Stutzman of violating the Washington Law Against Discrimination, which in 2006 added sexual orientation to its list of protected characteristics.

Stutzman has said she was surprised at her friend’s decision, since the two spoke at length and then embraced that 2012 day. But Ingersoll and Freed were so upset that they canceled their plans for a large wedding, fearing further discrimination, and opted for a smaller ceremony at home, according to the ACLU.

Washington is one of 19 states that ban discrimination in employment, housing, and public accommodations on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity, according to the Human Rights Campaign, a gay rights organization.

The U.S. Supreme Court already is considering whether to review a similar case, which involves a Colorado baker who refused to bake a cake for a gay couple. In 2014, the high court declined to revisit a New Mexico Supreme Court decision that found that a photographer violated a state civil rights law when she declined to photograph a lesbian couple’s commitment ceremony.