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US Supreme Court rules on same-sex marriage case with implications in Washington

In a 7-2 opinion, the United States Supreme Court ruled this morning in favor of a baker who refused to make wedding cake for a same-sex couple on religious grounds in Masterpiece Cakeshop, LTD., Et Al. v. Colorado Human Rights Commission, Et Al. Mr. Phillips, the baker, based his refusal on the belief that supporting same-sex marriage by baking the cake would violate his religious beliefs, much the same as Barronelle Stutzman, the owner of Arlene’s Flowers, Inc. in Richland, Washington contended that making flowers for the wedding of Rob Ingersol and Curt Freed violated her religious beliefs.

Under Washington state law, a business need not provide a particular service, but if it chooses to do so for couples of the opposite sex, it must provide that service equally to same-sex couples. The State of Washington sued Arlene’s Flowers under the state Consumer Protection Act and Law Against Discrimination for Ms. Stutzman’s refusal to arrange flowers for the same-sex marriage in 2013. Arlene’s Flowers, Inc., v. the State of Washington is currently pending review in the US Supreme Court.

In Masterpiece Cakeshop and Arlene’s Flowers, both proprietors argued that state laws against discrimination requiring businesses to provide their services to any weddings, whether gay or straight, violate their First Amendment rights or freedom of speech and Free Exercise of religion. Though the Court today based its decision on other grounds related to the State of Colorado’s treatment of Mr. Phillip’s case and not the underlying freedom of speech and religion issues, the decision in Masterpiece Cakeshop, provides several clues as to how the Court could ultimately decide the issue.

Particularly illuminating as to future decisions, commentary in the majority opinion delivered by Justice Kennedy relies on the Court’s recent affirmation of same-sex marriage stating,

Our society has come to the recognition that gay persons and gay couples cannot be treated as social outcasts or as inferior in dignity and worth. For that reason the laws and the Constitution can, and in some instances must, protect them in the exercise of their civil rights. The exercise of their freedom on terms equal to others must be given great weight and respect by the courts. At the same time, the religious and philosophical objections to gay marriage are protected views and in some instances protected forms of expression. As this Court observed in Obergefell v. Hodges, 576 U. S. ___ (2015), “[t]he First Amendment ensures that religious organizations and persons are given proper protection as they seek to teach the principles that are so fulfilling and so central to their lives and faiths.” Id., at ___ (slip op., at 27). Nevertheless, while those religious and philosophical objections are protected, it is a general rule that such objections do not allow business owners and other actors in the economy and in society to deny protected persons equal access to goods and services under a neutral and generally applicable public accommodations law.  – Masterpiece Cakeshop, p. 9.

Affirming this aspect of the decision, Governor Jay Inslee issued a statement clarifying,

“Intolerance has no home in Washington state, and today’s Masterpiece Cakeshop decision by the Supreme Court does nothing to change that. Our effort to protect couples from unlawful discrimination was upheld in the Arlene’s Flowers case by our state Supreme Court last year, and remains the law of our land.”

Meanwhile, the Supreme Court could pave the way for a final determination of these issues on the merits when it decides whether to take up Arlene’s Flowers later this year. An action which seems likely given the dissent of Justices Ginsburg and Sotomayor and the majority’s additional commentary in the case;

The outcome of cases like this in other circumstances must await further elaboration in the courts, all in the context of recognizing that these disputes must be resolved with tolerance, without undue disrespect to sincere religious beliefs, and without subjecting gay persons to indignities when they seek goods and services in an open market. – Masterpiece Cakeshop, p. 18.