Religious Liberty Advocates Alarmed by State Court Ruling

NEW YORK -

Advocates of religious liberty warned of serious challenges for traditional faith groups in America if the ruling of a Washington State court is allowed to stand.

According to the State Supreme Court ruling, a florist, Barronelle Stutzman, violated anti-discrimination laws by declining to provide services to an event that she felt violated her religious beliefs. In addition to making her personally liable for fines, the ruling puts her ability to continue to operate her business at risk.

“Barronelle is just a person who wanted to peacefully live by her faith, and now she is hit with a court decision that could take away her assets and could cost her the business that she has built up for years. That’s something that people should sit up and take note of,” Jim Campbell of Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), which represented Mrs. Stutzman, told Hamodia. “The court declared that to act on moral beliefs held by many faiths [is] unlawful; the ramifications of that could be far-reaching.”

The unanimous ruling upheld the decision of lower courts in Washington State and systematically denied the claim of Mrs. Stutzman, a 72-year-old grandmother, that forcing her to design floral arrangements for the event violated her freedom of expression and that the plaintiffs could easily obtain services elsewhere, as well as other aspects of her argument.

Rabbi Abba Cohen, vice president for federal affairs at Agudath Israel of America, told Hamodia that while he was not surprised by the outcome of the case, he was “deeply disappointed” by the “short shrift” that the court gave to the plaintiff’s religious freedoms claims.

“They dismissed all of her constitutional claims in a few paragraphs. The court has every right to judge the case on what it sees as the merits, but to disregard such serious claims is surprising,” he said. “The larger issue that you see in this opinion is a glaring example of the lessening of the importance of religious rights in America, especially when they run up against more popular ‘civil rights’ issues. Over the years, religious rights have lost their once-exalted status in this country.”

While the government often makes exemptions available to religious individuals in instances where laws or policies could come into conflict with their values, the Washington Court said that to do so in this case would amount to “a patchwork of exceptions” that would “fatally undermine” the state’s “goals of eradicating barriers to the equal treatment of all citizens in the commercial marketplace.”

Rabbi Cohen took issue with this reasoning.

“Carve-outs on religious grounds in such a case are not only appropriate, but are well established in American law,” he said.

Although originally brought by two private litigants, the case against Mrs. Stutzman was argued by Washington State in conjunction with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). Governor Jay Inslee enthusiastically welcomed the ruling.

In response to a query from Hamodia as to whether the state felt responsible to take action in the face of what amounts to a de facto ban on religious traditionalists in certain professions, a spokesman responded that the governor “does not believe any further action with respect to this issue is necessary or appropriate.”

The Alliance for Freedom has announced that they intend to appeal the ruling to the Supreme Court, which is already considering taking up several other cases of a similar nature.

Rabbi Cohen was optimistic that the High Court would deal with the issue in the near future and that its ruling would grant “clarity” on the matter. Should such a ruling come down in favor of religious objectors, he felt it would do a great deal to “blunt” what is viewed by many as the stigmatization of traditionalist communities. Rabbi Cohen added that should the Supreme Court hear this or similar cases, the Agudah would very likely submit a support brief on behalf of the religious objectors.

Kristin Waggoner of ADF, who was lead council in the case, said in a statementthat the decision was motivated by “crushing dissent” from progressive social causes.

“In a free America, people with differing beliefs must have room to coexist. It’s wrong for the state to force any citizen to support a particular view … against their will. Freedom of speech and religion aren’t subject to the whim of a majority; they are constitutional guarantees.”