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Aug. 12, 2022

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In Our View: Florist Ruling Got it Right

Discrimination unconstitutional bigotry cloaked under guise of religious freedom

The Columbian

With a unanimous decision last week, the Washington Supreme Court correctly emphasized that discrimination in public accommodations is unconstitutional.

The case involved a Richland florist who had declined to create a floral arrangement for the 2013 wedding of a gay couple because the marriage violated her religious beliefs. The couple sued, and Attorney General Bob Ferguson pursued the case, standing against bigotry that is cloaked under the guise of religious freedom. Ferguson provided florist Barronelle Stutzman with the opportunity to comply with consumer protection laws; she chose to hire lawyers, who turned the case into a cause célèbre for those eager to see religious discrimination in every nook and cranny of society.

But the notion that a florist who provides for weddings should also provide for the wedding of a gay couple is easily defended. It is no less a matter of civil rights than the Jim Crow laws of the past in which restaurants could refuse service on the basis of a customer’s color. As Justice Sheryl Gordon McCloud wrote in the decision, referring to the plaintiffs: “We agree with Ingersoll and Freed that ‘this case is no more about access to flowers than civil rights cases were about access to sandwiches.’ ”

Critics of the decision claim that the plaintiffs could have found another florist for their wedding. But that does not diminish the discrimination involved. Suggestions that they could find another apartment if evicted for being gay, or that they could find another job if fired because of their sexual preference would rightly be criticized; so, too, should refusals by a public business to provide service.

In a deposition, Stutzman acknowledged that providing flowers for a Muslim wedding would not necessarily constitute an endorsement of Islam. She is correct. Neither does providing flowers for a gay wedding represent an endorsement of gay marriage; it is simply providing a professional service — as she does for other weddings.

Of course, Stutzman is not the only person in recent years to claim religious freedom around the issue of gay marriage. A county clerk in Kentucky refused to issue marriage licenses for legal gay marriages; in another case, an Oregon bakery took the issue to court, lost, and eventually closed its doors. But there is hypocrisy involved in turning this issue into a religious-based one. The evidence suggests that no florists or bakers or county clerks have refused to serve couples who are fornicators or idolaters or have been divorced, which, we would think, would violate their religious beliefs. No, the specter of religious freedom only arises when gay marriage is involved.

Such selective discrimination leads to questions about whether a florist could refuse services for a black couple or for an interracial marriage. Fortunately, this nation moved beyond such institutionalized racism long ago, and now it is time to move past discrimination of gay people who wish to be legally married — a right that has been confirmed by the United States Supreme Court.

Stutzman, however, does not appear ready to move on. Her lawyers and activist groups have made online pitches for donations to continue the fight and take it to the U.S. Supreme Court. In truth, it is a losing battle, one designed to preserve discrimination rather than support religious freedom.

The bottom line is that if a business caters to the public, it must cater to all citizens who are engaged in legal activities. Refusing to do so is a matter of unconstitutional discrimination rather than an expression of religious faith.

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