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Posts Tagged ‘same-sex weddings’

Washington Supreme Court Unanimously Rules Against Florist Who Refused Flowers for Same-Sex Wedding Ceremony

Posted on: February 17th, 2017 by Art Leonard No Comments

 

Continuing an unbroken string of appellate rulings finding that small businesses cannot refuse to supply goods or services for same-sex marriages in jurisdictions that ban sexual orientation discrimination, the nine members of the Supreme Court of the State of Washington unanimously ruled on February 16 that Barronelle Stutzman, proprietor of Arlene’s Flowers, Inc., and her business, violated the Washington Law Against Discrimination (WLAD) and the state’s Consumer Protection Act, and had no constitutional right to do so based on her religious beliefs. State of Washington v. Arlene’s Flowers, 2017 Wash. LEXIS 216, 2017 WL 629181.

This ruling follows a string of losses by businesses that sought to rely on religious objections to refuse wedding-related services to same-sex couples, involving a photographer in New Mexico (Elane Photography v. Willock, 309 P.3d 53 (N.M. 2013)), a baker in Colorado (Mullins v. Masterpiece Cakeshop, 370 P.3d 272 (Col. App. 2015)), and a farm that provided a venue for weddings in upstate New York (Gifford v. McCarthy, 23 N.Y.S.3d 422 (N.Y. App. Div. 2016)).  So far, no final court decision has ruled in favor of a for-profit business claiming a right to discriminate against same-sex couples in connection with their weddings, either under the federal and/or state constitutions or under a state’s Religious Freedom statute.  Washington State does not have such a statute, so Ms. Stutzman’s case came down to two questions: whether her refusal of services violated the public accommodations and consumer protection statutes, and whether she was privileged to withhold her services by the 1st Amendment of the U.S. Constitution or an equivalent provision of the Washington Constitution.

Robert Ingersoll and Curt Freed had been living together in what the opinion by Justice Sheryl Gordon McCloud calls “a committed, romantic relationship” for several years. Over those years they had been regular customers of Arlene’s Flowers, spending by their estimate as much as $1,000 total at the store.  After the Washington legislature passed a bill allowing same-sex marriages in 2012, Freed proposed to Ingersoll and they planned to marry on their ninth anniversary in September 2013 with a large reception at a major event venue, “complete with a dinner or reception, a photographer, a caterer, a wedding cake, and flowers.”  Naturally, Ingersoll went to Arlene’s Flowers to make arrangements, anticipating no problems because the owner, Ms. Stutzman, knew him and Curt, knew they were gay, and had dealt with them many times.  They considered Arlene’s Flowers to be “their florist.”

So it was a big surprise when Stutzman told Ingersoll that she could not do the flowers for their wedding because of “her relationship to Jesus Christ.” Indeed, the conversation did not even get as far as discussing what kind of flowers or floral arrangements the men wanted, or whether Stutzman was being asked to deliver and set up floral arrangements at an event venue or just to prepare them to be picked up at her store.

The story quickly got media play after Ingersoll posted about it on his facebook.com page, inspiring the state’s Attorney General Bob Ferguson to initiate litigation against Stutzman and her business, and Ingersoll and Freed filed their own complaint. The cases were combined in Benton County Superior Court, where the trial judge granted summary judgment against Stutzman.

The analysis by the court will be familiar to anybody who has been following this issue as it has unfolded in parallel with the advance of marriage equality. Courts have generally rejected the argument made by Stutzman that refusing to do business with same-sex couples in connection with their marriages is not sexual orientation discrimination because the refusal has to do with “conduct” (a wedding) rather than “status” (sexual orientation).  The Washington court decisively rejected this argument, advanced by lawyers from Alliance Defending Freedom, the organization that has been involved in the other cases mentioned above and which is petitioning the Supreme Court to review the Colorado baker case.  So the major focus of the case is not on whether she violated the statutes, that being easily decided, but rather on whether she was privileged to do so because of constitutional protection for her freedom of religion, speech or association.

Most civil rights laws include provisions exempting religious institutions and their clergy from complying to the extent that their doctrines would be violated, but the exemptions usually do not extend to private, for-profit businesses. The Supreme Court of the United States ruled in the Hobby Lobby case, consistent with prior decisions going back to the 1990s, that the 1st Amendment does not require the government to exempt businesses from complying with statutes of general application, such as civil rights laws or, in that case, the Affordable Care Act.  However, under the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), a statute enacted in response to the Supreme Court’s religious freedom ruling, the Supreme Court found that a for-profit business may be entitled to claim an exemption from complying with a federal statute or regulation because of the religious views of the owners of the business.  The test in such a case would be whether the challenged statute imposes a substantial burden on the free exercise rights of the business, and then whether the government has both a compelling interest for the statute and has adopted the least intrusive means of achieving that interest.

Washington State does not have a RFRA, so Stutzman was limited to making constitutional claims. The court rejected her argument that her floral arrangements were the kind of artistic creations entitled to free speech protection, or that requiring her to design and supply floral arrangements for a wedding ceremony of which she disapproved would burden her freedom of association.  The court conceded that requiring her to devise floral decorations for such an event would burden her free exercise of religion, but found that the state’s compelling interest in protecting all its residents from discrimination in places of public accommodation clearly outweighed the incidental burden on religion.

“As applied in this case,” wrote Justice Gordon McCloud, “the WLAD does not compel speech or association. And assuming that it substantially burdens Stutzman’s religious free exercise, the WLAD does not violate her right to religious exercise under either the First Amendment or article I, section 11 [of the Washington constitution], because it is a neutral, generally applicable law that serves our state government’s compelling interest in eradicating discrimination in public accommodations.”

When the court refers to a “neutral law,” it means a law that does not expressly target religion and was not enacted for the specific purpose of imposing a burden on religion. A law that, in general, forbids all public accommodations from discrimination because of sexual orientation or gender identity, is such a “neutral law.”  Of course, one notes, religiously-inspired advocates such as Alliance Defending Freedom would argue that it is not neutral, and that legislators adopt those laws knowing that they will burden religious believers, because testimony to that effect is usually presented in legislative hearings and the argument is made during legislative debate.  But the courts generally will not attribute a discriminatory intent to the legislature as a whole on the basis of such testimony and arguments.

Stutzman had argued that her refusal to “do” the flowers for the wedding was not a serious problem for the two men because she suppled Ingersoll with the names of other florists who would readily do it, and in fact after this case got publicity several florists contacted Ingersoll and Freed and volunteered to provide flowers for their wedding. In the event, the men were so affected by what had happened to them that they dropped their plans for a big wedding ceremony and instead had a small private event with minimal fuss. The court said that being able to get flowers was not really the issue in this case.  Rather, it was about the violation of civil rights stemming from a denial of services because the customers were a gay couple.  Indeed, in her deposition Stutzman conceded that she would happily supply flowers for a Muslim wedding or a wedding for atheists, making clear that her objections here focused on the fact that it was for a “gay wedding.”  It was not relevant that she claimed she was not homophobic and happily sold flowers to Ingersoll and Freed when it was not for a wedding.  That was not the point of the case.

The timing of this decision is particularly interesting, because the Supreme Court was scheduled to discuss whether to grant review of the Colorado baker case on February 17, having listed it at two of the Court’s prior conferences and having sent for and received the full record from the state courts just recently. If the Court made a decision to review that case at the February 17 conference, it would probably be announced on Tuesday, February 21.

The ACLU of Washington has been involved in representing Ingersoll and Freed in this case. A spokesperson for Alliance Defending Freedom, representing Stutzman, announced that they would petition the Supreme Court to review this case as well as the Colorado baker case.

 

N.Y. Appellate Division Finds Wedding Venue Unlawfully Excluded Same-Sex Couple

Posted on: January 15th, 2016 by Art Leonard No Comments

A unanimous five-judge bench of the New York Appellate Division, 3rd Department, an intermediate appellate court that hears appeals from state agency rulings in Albany, upheld a decision by the State Division of Human Rights (SDHR) that Liberty Ridge Farm LLC, an upstate business corporation that rents facilities for wedding ceremonies and other life-cycle events, violated the state’s Human Rights Law (HLR) in 2012 when the business turned away a lesbian couple looking for a place to hold their wedding ceremony and reception.  The court’s January 14 opinion was written by Justice Karen K. Peters.  Gifford v. McCarthy, 2016 N.Y. App. Div. LEXIS 238, 2016 WL 155543.

In June 2011 New York enacted its Marriage Equality Law, which went into effect the next month, providing that same-sex couples could marry and that their marriages would be treated the same under all provisions of New York law as different-sex marriages.  In October of 2011, Melisa McCarthy and Jennifer McCarthy became engaged, intending to marry during 2012.  In the fall of 2012, Melisa phoned Cynthia Gifford, co-owner of Liberty Ridge Farm, to ask about holding the wedding there.

Ms. Gifford and her husband Robert co-own the farm in Rensselaer County.  It is a working farm, but parts of the premises are regularly rented to the public for use as a wedding venue.  According to Justice Peters’ opinion, “When providing a venue site, Liberty Ridge offers several wedding-related services, including transportation of guests within the premises, a light beverage station, decoration and set-up services, flower arrangements and event coordination,” and Ms. Gifford serves as the “event coordinator.”  Liberty Ridge also contracts with a caterer to provide food and beverages for wedding receptions and “employs catering, kitchen and wait staff for that purpose.”

When Gifford figured out from Melisa’s use of a female pronoun to refer to her fiancé that she was engaged to a woman, she immediately said that there was a “problem” because the farm did “not hold same-sex marriages.”  When Melisa asked why not, Gifford responded that “it’s a decision that my husband and I have made that that’s not what we wanted to have on the farm.”  The McCarthys followed up by filing a discrimination complaint with the State Division of Human Rights against the Giffords and their corporation, and found a different venue for their wedding.

The HRL provides that places of public accommodation may not discriminate in their provision of services because of the sexual orientation of those seeking the services.   The Giffords responded to the charge of sexual orientation discrimination that they did not believe their operation was a “public accommodation” subject to the law and that they were not discriminating based on sexual orientation, but rather exercising their 1st Amendment rights of freedom of speech, association and religious exercise. They did not inquire into the sexual orientation of potential customers, they insisted.

A public hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) led to a decision that Liberty Ridge Farm LLC was a place of public accommodation and that the denial of the facility to a same-sex couple for use as a wedding venue violated the statute.  Constitutional questions were necessarily reserved to the subsequent court proceeding.  The ALJ recommended that each of the McCarthys receive $1,500 to compensate for the emotional distress they suffered as a result of being discriminated against, and that the Giffords have to pay a fine to the agency of $10,000.  The ALJ also recommended that the petitioners be directed to “cease and desist” from violating the statute, and establish anti-discrimination training and procedures at their business. The Commissioner of Human Rights accepted the ALJ’s findings and recommendations with minor changes, and the Giffords filed their appeal to the Appellate Division, raising both statutory and constitutional challenges to the decision.

This case presented questions of first impression for New York, but the issues are not new for anyone who has been paying attention to similar cases that have arisen in other states.  To date, appellate rulings in New Mexico, Oregon, Colorado and Washington state have all rejected the idea that businesses can deny their services or goods to same-sex couples in connection with commitment or wedding ceremonies when state or local laws forbid sexual orientation discrimination by businesses.  Justice Peters cited those cases – most prominently the Elane Photography case from New Mexico, which was denied review by the U.S. Supreme Court on the constitutional questions – in reaching a ruling consistent with the decisions from other states.

Turning first to the statutory claims, the court easily dispensed with the Giffords’ argument that their farm is not a “public accommodation” under the statute.  They are incorporated as a for-profit business and they advertise the availability of their facilities to members of the public, so their argument that they are just a privately-owned farm that rents out its barn occasionally for a wedding ceremony was not going to cut it under the broad interpretation of the statute that the state courts have followed.  “The fact that the wedding ceremonies occur on private property and pursuant to a written contract does not, as petitioners contend, remove Liberty Ridge’s facilities from the reach of the Human Rights Law,” wrote Justice Peters; “the critical factor is that the facilities are made available to the public at large.”

As to the argument that they were not discriminating based on sexual orientation, the court was equally dismissive.  “As the record clearly reflects,” wrote Justice Peters, “Cynthia Gifford displayed no unwillingness to allow the McCarthys to marry at the farm until Melisa McCarthy referred to her fiancé as a ‘she.’  Despite Cynthia Gifford’s clear rejection of the McCarthys as customers, petitioners nonetheless argue that, in advising Melisa McCarthy that ‘we do not hold same-sex marriages here at the farm,’ they did not deny services to the McCarthys ‘because of’ their sexual orientation.  Instead, petitioners claim that the decision to do so was based solely upon the Giffords’ religious beliefs regarding same-sex marriage.  Such attempts to distinguish between a protected status and conduct closely correlated with that status have been soundly rejected.”  Justice Peters cited the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision involving the refusal of University of California Hastings Law School to recognize a chapter of the Christian Legal Society, which excluded gay students from membership, in which Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg expressly rejected this kind of status/conduct distinction, as well as the famous Bob Jones University case, which upheld a denial of tax exempt status to the school because of its policy forbidding interracial dating by students.

The court found that the “act of entering into a same-sex marriage is ‘conduct that is inextricably tied to sexual orientation,’” so there was no basis to distinguish this from on outright denial of services because of a potential customer’s sexual orientation.  The Giffords had tried to bolster this defense by claiming that they would have been happy to host a wedding reception for the McCarthys, so long as the actual wedding ceremony was not held on their premises, but the court rejected this defense, pointing out that the statute “does not permit businesses to offer a ‘limited menu’ of goods or services to customers on the basis of a status that fits within one of the protected categories.”

The court then turned to the Giffords’ constitutional claims, and here rested its analysis on the proposition that neither the federal First Amendment nor the analogous provision in New York State’s constitution allow people to violate general anti-discrimination laws based on their religious beliefs.  “While we recognize that the burden placed on the Giffords’ right to freely exercise their religion is not inconsequential,” wrote Peters, “it cannot be overlooked that SDHR’s determination does not require them to participate in the marriage of a same-sex couple.  Indeed, the Giffords are free to adhere to and profess their religious beliefs that same-sex couples should not marry, but they must permit same-sex couples to marry on the premises if they choose to allow opposite-sex couples to do so.  To be weighed against the Giffords’ interests in adhering to the tenets of their faith is New York’s long-recognized, substantial interest in eradicating discrimination.   Balancing these competing interests, we conclude that petitioners failed to show that SDHR’s determination constituted an unreasonable interference with the Giffords’ religious freedom.”

The court similarly rejected the Giffords’ other First Amendment claims.  “Here,” wrote Peters, “SDHR’s determination does not compel the Giffords to endorse, espouse or promote same-sex marriages, nor does it require them to recite or display any message at all.  The Giffords remain free to express whatever views they may have on the issue of same-sex marriage.  The determination simply requires them to abide by the law and offer the same goods and services to same-sex couples that they offer to other couples.”  The court rejected the Giffords’ assertion that holding same-sex marriages in their barn would broadcast to passersby their “support for same-sex marriage.”  The court doubted that anyone would think that a business providing a service in compliance with a law that requires them not to discriminate was making any kind of statement of the owners’ personal beliefs by providing the service.

The court also rejected the “expressive association” claim, finding that “there is nothing in this record to indicate that petitioners’ wedding business was ‘organized for specific expressive purposes’ rather than for the purpose of making a profit through service contracts with customers.”

The court also concluded that the remedy imposed by SDHR was “reasonably related to the wrongdoing, supported by evidence and comparable to the relief awarded in similar cases,” so there was no reason to change it.  The standard for judicial review of the agency’s remedy is “abuse of discretion,” and the court found that SDHR did not abuse its discretion by imposing the $3,000 damage award and the $10,000 fine.

The Giffords and their business are represented by Alliance Defending Freedom, an anti-gay religiously oriented litigation group that actively seeks to vindicate the proposition that free exercise of religion, at least by Christians, should always trump other legal duties.  They will undoubtedly try to get the state’s highest court, the Court of Appeals, to review this ruling, but that court does not have to take the case and is not likely to do so, given the unanimity of the five-member Appellate Division bench and the consistency with appellate rulings from other states involving wedding photographers, florists and bakeries.  Review by the U.S. Supreme Court is also unlikely, since it turned down the wedding photographer case from New Mexico and there is no division among the lower courts that have been ruling on these types of cases.

The McCarthys are represented by Mariko Hirose of the NY Civil Liberties Union and Rose A. Saxe of the ACLU.  SDHR’s appellate attorney Michael Swirsky argued on behalf of the agency in defense of its ruling, and a variety of civil rights and gay rights organizations weighed in as friends of the court, including the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, Lambda Legal and the National Center for Lesbian Rights, as well as New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman.