Washington State Florist Seeks Protection of Free Expression Rights from US Supreme Court
On August 25, 2017, in Washington, DC, the invitation to “say it with flowers” has proved problematic for a Washington state florist who is asking the United States Supreme Court to review her case. The Thomas More Society has filed an amicus curiae (“friend of the court”) brief in support of the request for review by Baronnelle Stutzman, floral designer and owner of Arlene’s Flowers in Richland, Washington. Stutzman was sued by a long-time customer when she declined his request to create floral arrangements for the celebration of his marriage to another man.
As a committed Christian, Stutzman believes that marriage is meant to be between one man and one woman. This presented a problem when she was asked to use her art of custom floral design to participate in and celebrate a marriage ceremony that would violate her sincerely held religious beliefs. Stutzman believes her First Amendment right to freedom of speech protects her against being compelled to create artistic expression for an event that contravenes her religious beliefs.
The Washington State Supreme Court disagreed and affirmed a ruling punishing the 71-year old Stutzman for running her business according to her faith. In 2015, the trial court found that Stutzman had violated the Washington Law Against Discrimination and the Washington Consumer Protection Act. Stutzman has been ordered to pay a $1,000 fine, actual damages in an undetermined amount, and attorneys’ fees and costs expected to total hundreds of thousands of dollars. She can also no longer operate her business according to her beliefs without risking further legal sanction. The small-town florist is now seeking justice and validation of her constitutionally protected rights from the highest court in the land, the United States Supreme Court.
Joan Mannix, Thomas More Society Special Counsel, stated that the United States Supreme Court and the United States Courts of Appeals have consistently recognized that the First Amendment affords expansive protection to all forms of expression, including nonverbal art forms, including painting, music and dance.
“There is extensive case law to support this and the idea that an artist’s self-expression is protected regardless of whether the resulting works clearly express a particularized message,” stated Mannix. “Baronnelle Stutzman’s custom floral arrangements are a nonverbal medium of artistic expression. Her arrangements, especially those for wedding ceremonies, are designed to deliver an expressive message, consistent with the personalities of the couple, approving of and celebrating their marriage, and are therefore entitled to First Amendment protection.”
Mannix added that one reason it is so important for the United States Supreme Court to accept the case for review is because the Washington Supreme Court adopted a narrow construction of the First Amendment that disregards numerous cases holding that nonverbal art forms constitute pure “speech” within the meaning of the First Amendment, despite the fact that those art forms do not employ actual words.
Stutzman, explained why she gave her longstanding client referrals to three other florists when asked to create custom floral arrangements for his wedding to another man: “If all he’d asked for were prearranged flowers, I’d gladly have provided them.” “If the celebration were for his partner’s birthday, I’d have been delighted to pour my best into the challenge. But as a Christian, weddings have a particular significance…(he) was asking me to choose between my affection for him and my commitment to Christ…my relationship with Jesus is everything to me.”
Read the amicus brief filed August 21, 2017, with the United States Supreme Court in Arlene’s Flowers, Inc. v. State of Washington, U. S. Supreme Court, Docket No. 17-108, here.