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September 20, 2017
Florist takes religious liberty case to US Supreme Court
Credit: Clotee Allochuku via Flickr (CC BY 2.0).
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.- Flower shop owner Barronelle Stutzman is asking the U.S. Supreme Court to protect her from a Washington state court ruling that could destroy her financially because her religious beliefs prevented her from serving a same-sex wedding ceremony.

“If the government can ruin Barronelle for peacefully living and working according to her faith, it can punish anyone else for expressing their belief,” said Stutzman’s attorney Kristen Waggoner, a senior counsel with the Alliance Defending Freedom legal group.

“The government shouldn’t have the power to force a 72-year-old grandmother to surrender her freedom in order to run her family business. Anyone who supports the First Amendment rights that the U.S. Constitution guarantees to all of us should stand with Barronelle.”

“Our nation has a long history of protecting the right to dissent, but simply because Barronelle disagrees with the state about marriage, the government and ACLU have put at risk everything she owns,” Waggoner charged.

The attorney said the court decision not only endangered Stutzman’s business. It also endangered her family’s savings, her retirement fund, and her home.

Waggoner said her client, who is Southern Baptist, faced “burdensome penalties” simply for exercising a right of free expression.

The legal petition was filed July 14 with the U.S. Supreme Court. The complaint contends that the Washington courts’ reasoning is so broad that it “extends to nearly all speech created for profit” and is “particularly hazardous.” Also dangerous is the “extreme nature” of the punishment for the store owner, which threatens to bankrupt her personally.

The state courts ruled that she must pay penalties and attorneys’ fees for declining to make floral arrangements for a customer who wanted her to create designs for a same-sex ceremony. Her fines and fees could surpass $2 million.

“This Court’s review is needed to prevent the state from silencing professional speech creators with dissenting religious views,” the petition asks the Supreme Court.

In 2013, Barronelle Stutzman, owner of Arlene’s Flowers in Richland, Wash., declined to serve the same-sex wedding of a long-time customer who had requested her service. She cited her Christian religious beliefs that marriage is between one man and one woman. She recommended her customer to another nearby floral shop.

Stutzman said she and her client have been friends for years.

“There was never an issue with his being gay, just as there hasn’t been with any of my other customers or employees,” she said July 14. “He just enjoyed my custom floral designs, and I loved creating them for him.”

“But now the state is trying to use this case to force me to create artistic expression that violates my deepest beliefs and take away my life’s work and savings, which will also harm those who I employ. I’m not asking for anything that our Constitution hasn’t promised me and every other American: the right to create freely, and to live out my faith without fear of government punishment or interference.”

After hearing of the incident, the office of the state attorney general wrote her that she was violating the state law against discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and asked her to stop declining such weddings. Stutzman refused out of conscience.

The American Civil Liberties Union and the state of Washington eventually sued her. A lower court ruled against her, ordering her to pay a fine and legal costs.

She took her case to the Washington State Supreme Court, which unanimously upheld the lower court’s decision in February. It said that as a business owner Stutzman had to abide by the state’s anti-discrimination law despite her religious beliefs.

Waggoner said the case was similar to a Colorado cake shop owner Jack Phillips, who declined to make a wedding cake for a same-sex couple and also faces “burdensome penalties.”

Alliance Defending Freedom is asking the high court to consolidate Stutzman’s case with Phillips’ case.