By Jonathon Van Maren
It looks like religious liberty may have just secured another important victory in the wake of Jack Phillips’ success at the US Supreme Court earlier this month. In a decision that Ryan T. Anderson called “great news,” the Court decided to vacate a Washington state ruling against florist Barronelle Stutzman, who politely declined to make a flower arrangement for a gay wedding back in 2013. From the Catholic News Agency:
The U.S. Supreme Court sent the case back to the Washington Supreme Court, instructing that the case be reconsidered in the light of Masterpiece Cakeshop decision earlier this month. In the Masterpiece case, the U.S. Supreme Court sided with Christian cake baker Jack Phillips, who had declined to make a wedding cake for a same-sex couple. The Supreme Court ruled that the Colorado Civil Rights Commission had shown an impermissible hostility toward religion in their handling of the case. Stutzman’s attorneys have argued that a similar hostility against religion was on display in the handling of Stuzman’s case by Washington’s attorney general.
“While the attorney general failed to prosecute a business that obscenely berated and discriminated against Christian customers, he has steadfastly—and on his own initiative—pursued unprecedented measures to punish Barronelle not just in her capacity as a business owner but also in her personal capacity,” said Kristen Waggoner, senior vice president of Alliance Defending Freedom, the group defending both Phillips and Stutzman. “In its Masterpiece Cakeshop ruling, the Supreme Court condemned that sort of one-sided, discriminatory application of the law against people of faith.”
“Also, in the legal briefs that the attorney general has filed in Barronelle’s case, he has repeatedly and overtly demeaned her faith. He has compared her religious beliefs about marriage—which the Supreme Court said are ‘decent and honorable’—to racial discrimination,” Waggoner continued.
“This conflicts with the Supreme Court’s recognition in Masterpiece Cakeshop that it was ‘inappropriate’ for the government to draw parallels between those religious beliefs and ‘defenses of slavery’.”
The fact that the Court has vacated the initial decision against Stutzman is very encouraging, and potentially indicates the strength of the Masterpiece Cakeshop precedent—it appears that the Court genuinely wants to see a compromise where gay marriage is legal, but Christians who disagree with gay marriage on moral grounds are protected in those beliefs. For those of who not familiar with the case, here’s a few details:
The Washington case centers around 73-year-old Barronelle Stutzman, owner of Arlene’s Flowers in Richland, Washington. In 2013, Rob Ingersoll, a long-time friend and customer of Stutzman, asked her to arrange flowers for his same-sex wedding ceremony.
Stutzman knew that Ingersoll was gay, and had always been happy to create flower arrangements for birthdays and other special occasions.
However, because she believes marriage to be a sign of the relationship between Christ and his Church, she told Ingersoll that should could not make a flower arrangement for a same-sex wedding.
Ingersoll initially said that he understood and asked her to recommend another florist. Later, however, his partner posted a message on social media about Stutzman declining to take part in the wedding, and it went viral. Soon afterward, she was informed that she was being sued by the Washington State attorney general and the ACLU.
Stutzman, who is Southern Baptist, has said that she views weddings as more than just a job. She spends months or even years getting to know the bride and groom, to understand their vision and what they want to convey.
Because her wedding arrangements are such a deeply personal labor of love, she said that she felt that she could not in good conscience design flower arrangements for a same-sex wedding. In February 2017, the Washington Supreme Court upheld a lower court ruling against Stutzman. She then appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court to hear her case.
While the actual damages being sought by the gay couple are only around $7 – the mileage cost of driving to another florist – Stutzman could be responsible for more than $1 million in legal fees to nearly a dozen ACLU lawyers opposing her in the case. Her home, business, savings, and personal assets are all at risk in the case.
Over the last four-and-a-half year, Stutzman said she has received an outpouring and support and messages of encouragement from 58 countries, but also death threats that have required her to install a security system and change her route to work.
In a statement earlier this month, Stutzman said that she serves all customers, but cannot create products for events that conflict with her deeply-held religious beliefs. She said the Washington attorney general “has always ignored that part of my case, choosing to vilify me and my faith instead of respecting my religious beliefs about marriage.”
“When the state trial court ruled against me at the attorney general’s request, I wrote the attorney general a letter urging him ‘to drop’ the personal claims that risk stripping away ‘my home, business, and other assets’,” she said. “He didn’t do that. For him, this case has been about making an example of me—crushing me—all because he disapproves of what I believe about marriage.”
I mentioned Stutzman’s case in my 2016 book The Culture War along with nearly a dozen others as examples of the political and legal realignment that has been taking place in the wake of the social and moral realignment that began with the Sexual Revolution and in some ways concluded with the formal legalization of gay marriage (we have yet to discover how far the transgender phenomenon will spread.) Both she and Phillips were prominent figures the war over religious liberty, and the fact that both of them appear to have secured victories is both very significant and something to celebrate.
For anyone interested, my book on The Culture War, which analyzes the journey our culture has taken from the way it was to the way it is and examines the Sexual Revolution, hook-up culture, the rise of the porn plague, abortion, commodity culture, euthanasia, and the gay rights movement, is available for sale here.