Arlene’s Flowers Cannot Ignore Non-Discrimination Laws Regardless Of Owner’s Beliefs, Church-State Watchdog Group Says
A Richland, Wash., florist does not have a First Amendment right to refuse service to same-sex couples, Americans United for Separation of Church and State says.
In a friend-of-the-court brief filed yesterday, Americans United told the Washington State Supreme Court that the owner of Arlene’s Flowers cannot use her religious beliefs to skirt state anti-discrimination laws.
“Washington state law is very clear: businesses must serve all comers,” said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United. “If Arlene’s Flowers does not want to obey that law, it should not be operating a for-profit business.”
Arlene’s Flowers has thus far been unsuccessful in its legal proceedings. In March 2013, two repeat customers, Robert Ingersoll and Curt Freed, approached the florist about supplying flowers for their wedding. Court documents said Ingersoll had patronized the flower shop at least 20 times previously, and that its owner was aware that he is gay. Still, Arlene’s refused to fulfill Ingersoll’s request because, its owner argued, doing so would be equivalent to expressing support for marriage equality.
In February 2015, the Benton County Superior Court rejected the flower shop’s argument, and the business has appealed the judgment.
In its brief, Americans United explained that the freedom of speech does not give Arlene’s Flowers the right to discriminate, and noted that if Arlene’s Flowers is successful, its argument could be used by others to justify service refusals in virtually any context.
If accepted, the flower shop’s argument “would also allow nearly any business to discriminate as it pleases simply by contending that its provision of goods or services is expressive. Gay men, lesbians, and members of other protected classes (and their children) would not know which businesses they could patronize and could not expect the law to protect their rights of access to public accommodations,” asserts the brief.
This action is part of Americans United’s Protect Thy Neighbor project, which seeks to stop religion-based discrimination against LGBT persons and others.
“Business owners do not receive the right to discriminate merely by claiming that they are artists engaging in expression,” said Americans United Senior Litigation Counsel Gregory M. Lipper. “No matter how skilled the florist, there is no First Amendment right to discriminate when selling flowers.”
The brief for Ingersoll v. Arlene’s Flowers, Inc. was written by Lipper, Americans United Legal Director Richard B. Katskee and Legal Fellow Carmen N. Green. (Green is admitted in Virginia only, and is supervised by Katskee.) Hank L Balson of the Public Interest Law Group, PLLC served as local counsel.