Supreme Court Sends Florist Case Back to State Court

Supreme Court florist
(AP Photo/Jon Elswick)

The Supreme Court sent the case of a florist who declined to design a floral arrangement for an event that violated her religious beliefs back to the Washington State court that had ruled against her, saying that her claims should be reevaluated in light of the recent Masterpiece Cakeshop ruling.

In the wake of a 2017 ruling against Barronelle Stutzman, the 73-year-old proprietor of Arlene’s Flowers, religious liberty advocates sounded the alarm over the unanimous decision of Washington’s highest court, saying the judges had paid little attention to the florist’s claims of constitutional protections to freedom of conscience when they ruled that she had violated anti-discrimination laws.

In the recently decided Masterpiece case, which arose around a similar set of circumstances, U.S. Supreme Court Justices ruled for Colorado baker Jack Philips, saying that initial rulings against him had been tainted by anti-religious bias, and warned lower courts and other government bodies that the rights of faith objectors must be dealt with in an impartial manner.

Kristen Waggoner, senior vice president for Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), who argued both Mrs. Stutzman’s and Mr. Philip’s cases, expressed confidence that there were sufficient grounds for reversal of the Washington court’s initial decision.

“The U.S. Supreme Court has rightfully asked the Washington Supreme Court to reconsider Barronelle’s case in light of the Masterpiece Cakeshop decision,” she said. “In that ruling, the U.S. Supreme Court denounced government hostility toward the religious beliefs about marriage held by creative professionals like Jack and Barronelle. The state of Washington, acting through its attorney general, has shown similar hostility here.”

The Justice’s order makes the Washington State Supreme Court’s ruling void, and orders that same court to reconsider the case. It leaves a great deal of latitude as to whether the state’s highest court will review based on the present record, ask for additional statements or send the case back to the lower courts, whose ruling it initially upheld. Those decisions are to be made in the next 30 days. That is a relatively standard move that the Supreme Court often makes after ruling on a similar case.

Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson, who sued Mrs. Strutzman together with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), referred to the Supreme Court’s decision as a “procedural step,” and said he was “confident they will come to the same conclusion they did in their previous, unanimous ruling.” In another statement, he took exception to a comparison to Masterpiece and denied that his office or the state court’s actions were based on “impermissible hostility.”

Following the ruling against Mrs. Strutzman, ADF had petitioned the Supreme Court to hear her case. Many thought it would be an opportunity for the Justices to weigh in on the more complex issues of balancing the rights of religious traditionalists against advocates of “progressive” social causes, as Masterpiece had been decided on markedly narrow grounds. The decision to vacate and remand the case means that those issues will likely take a longer time for courts to decide.

In response to a question from Hamodia at a press conference held shortly after the order was released on Monday, Mrs. Waggoner said that there was ample evidence that Washington State had indeed acted out of animus towards her client.

“The attorney general showed hostility when he not only went after [Mrs. Strutzman’s] business but her personal assets as well, which is unprecedented … he bypassed procedure in order to relentlessly and vindictively pursue her,” she said.

She also noted an episode in Washington where religious Christians had been thrown out of an establishment by a proprietor who took issue with their beliefs, which Attorney General Ferguson did not act on. Mrs. Waggoner pointed to this inaction as evidence of lopsided enforcement of discrimination laws. She added that her client was prepared to appeal once again to the U.S. Supreme Court, should she lose again in Washington.

Rabbi Abba Cohen, vice president for Federal Affairs for Agudath Israel of America, who had sharply criticized what he identified as the Washington court’s “short shrift” given to religious rights, called the Supreme Court’s order a “glimmer of hope.”

“While it’s heartening that the Supreme Court said the case should go back to be viewed in the context of Masterpiece, that does not guarantee that it will come out the same way,” he told Hamodia. “I think this is the beginning of a process that will eventually give us greater clarity as to what components courts should look at when they consider bias claims and how to properly weigh religious rights.”