An unlikely defender of religious liberty passes the torch
Washington florist settles with ACLU but vows to continue fight for liberty
Barronelle Stutzman’s voice cracked with emotion on Thursday as she read from a prepared statement
in a Washington, D.C., conference room. The 77-year-old grandmother told reporters of the difficult decision to settle with plaintiffs who sued her for declining to do the flowers for a same-sex wedding—in violation of her Biblical beliefs about marriage—nearly 10 years ago.
“Today, that journey ends, and I am at peace,” said Stutzman. “I wish the culmination of all that I’ve been through could result in a new respect, culturally and legally, for freedom of conscience in our country. From the beginning, I have asked no more than the freedom to act in accordance with my religious beliefs and personal convictions. I have treated those who persecuted me with respect and with the assurance that I want for them the same freedom that I ask for myself.”
The settlement ends the Washington state florist’s legal battle with state authorities and the American Civil Liberties Union. It will allow her to avoid millions in attorneys’ fees and fines that threatened financial ruin.
Under the settlement, Stutzman agreed to bring the case to a close by withdrawing a pending petition for rehearing at the U.S. Supreme Court and to pay $5,000 to the two men who sued her—one, Rob Ingersoll, the friend and long-time client of her business, Arlene’s Flowers. In exchange, Ingersoll and his partner, Curt Freed, agreed not to pursue further fines, damages, or what would likely have been several million dollars in attorneys’ fees. Stutzman plans to retire and sell her business to her employees.
A decade ago, Ingersoll asked Stutzman to design a floral arrangement for his wedding ceremony with Freed. When she declined, explaining her Biblical objections, Ingersoll seemed to understand, Stutzman said. Though Ingersoll filed no complaint, based on social media reports of what transpired, the state on its own brought an action against Stutzman. A 10-year volley of litigation between the state; the men, who later filed an action with assistance from the ACLU; and Stutzman ensued.
Stutzman asked the U.S. Supreme Court to review her case after the Washington state Supreme Court ruled against her in June 2019. The court vacated the Washington court’s ruling and ordered it to reconsider it in light of the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2018 ruling in Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission, in which the court ruled in favor of Christian baker Jack Phillips. (The Colorado baker’s battle is not yet over.)
Rather than revise its ruling, the state court dug in, essentially reissuing the same decision in 2019. Stutzman asked the U.S. Supreme Court to consider her case yet again. To the disappointment of many, in June, it declined, over the objections of three justices who would have taken the case.
Stutzman then asked the court in late July to reconsider its decision to decline the case after a federal court of appeals ruled against Colorado website designer Lorie Smith. Like Stutzman, Smith, the owner of 303 Creative, declines to employ her creative services to support same-sex weddings, though she serves LGBT clients. Unlike Stutzman, hers is a pre-enforcement challenge, meaning she sought a ruling from the court prior to being asked to design websites for any weddings.
Alliance Defending Freedom’s Kristen Waggoner, who represents both Stutzman and Smith, said she is hopeful that the court will accept Smith’s case in the coming weeks and vindicate the conscience rights of all creative professionals. “The decision [by the appeals court] essentially says that [for] artists and each creator, the more unique their speech is, the fewer speech rights they have,” said Waggoner. “It turns the First Amendment on its head.”
Stutzman predicted her choice to follow conscience or cave to state authorities would become one no Christian can avoid. “The fight’s not over,” she vowed, adding, “We’re losing our liberties one by one, so we have to keep fighting. We have a responsibility.”
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