In 2013, Robert Ingersoll was newly engaged and shopping for wedding flowers. Unfortunately, when he approached his long-time florist, he was in for a surprise— the shop’s owner refused to sell to him. She could not, she explained, sell any flowers that would be used in his wedding because Robert is gay.
Tomorrow, the Washington Supreme Court will hear oral argument to decide whether Arlene’s Flowers violated Washington’s nondiscrimination statutes by denying service based on a protected characteristic— here, sexual orientation. In defense, Arlene’s Flowers has argued that the First Amendment’s Free Speech Clause and Free Exercise Clause each give it the right to not serve someone whose behavior violates a business owner’s religious beliefs. It is not the first business to push this new interpretation of the First Amendment.
Religious freedom is a fundamental American value, protected by the First Amendment. It guarantees us the right to believe— or not— as we see fit. We can also act on our beliefs, but not if those actions cause harm to others or result in discrimination.
In February, Americans United filed an amicus brief in this case. As we explained there, changing our nation’s fundamental understanding of religious freedom could undermine how nondiscrimination laws have operated in this country for half a century. If, as Arlene’s Flowers argues, the Constitution carves out instances when business owners can deny service due to a customer’s sexual orientation, then the same holds true for business owners who want to deny service based on a customer’s race, sex, ethnicity, religious belief, gender identity, or any other protected characteristic. Under Arlene’s Flowers’ understanding of the First Amendment, a white-supremacist restaurateur could turn away biracial couples, and a xenophobic baker could turn away immigrants.
And Arlene’s Flowers is not alone in embracing this argument. Government officials writing on behalf of the states of Arkansas, Alabama, Arizona, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Nebraska, Nevada, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Texas, Utah, and West Virginia filed an amicus brief of their own, in which they argue that business owners’ free-speech and free-exercise rights outweigh the government’s interest in stopping discrimination.
After the spate of hate crimes against immigrants, religious minorities, persons of color, and women in the wake of Tuesday’s election, it is more important than ever that our country’s nondiscrimination laws remain strong. Americans United will continue to watch this case, and others like it, to ensure that a runaway definition of religious freedom does not trample anyone’s rights.
The oral argument before the Washington Supreme Court in Ingersoll v. Arlene’s Flowers can be watched here on Tuesday, November 15, 2016, at noon EST/ 9:00am PST.
If you or someone you know was denied service because of a business owner’s religious beliefs, contact Americans United at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Follow Carmen Green online at @CNGinDC