Arlene’s Flowers and Washington State’s Commitment to Nondiscrimination

State v. Arlene’s Flowers, Inc., 91615-2 (Unanimous Opinion –  McCloud author). This case involved the violation of the Washington Law Against Discrimination (WLAD) and the Consumer Protection Act (CPA) by a florist seeking to deny services for a same-sex wedding. The Washington State Supreme Court unanimously held that the a business owner engaged in secular activities could not discriminate against their customers based on alleged religious beliefs (I use alleged, not the court. I use “alleged” for a number of reasons, but perhaps most important is the bizarre distinction Arlene’s Flowers attempts to draw between selling flowers to a gay couple for a wedding versus Valentine’s day, anniversaries, birthdays, or other occasions where one person in a couple is purchasing flowers for the other and attempting to claim that one violates their religion and the other doesn’t. It seems clear that applying to marriage is simply a wedge to being allowed to discriminate against LGBTQ people in any setting).

UPDATE: On July 17, 2017, Arlene’s Flowers petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court to review the case.  On June 26, 2017, The Supreme Court agreed to hear a case involving a Colorado Baker who wants to discriminate against same-sex couples when selling cakes for marriages (but again claims that he will sell cakes to same-sex couples for other reasons). 

Continued discussion of the Alrene’s Flowers Case:

  •  The court upheld the WLAD and the CPA and rejected the attempt to create an exception based on religious belief. The court held that the refusal to provide flowers was discrimination based on sexual orientation, rejecting the argument that it was marital status discrimination (and therefor permissible).
    • The florist attempted to argue (1) that it was marital status discrimination, not sexual orientation discrimination (and therefore okay for her to refuse services), (2) the WLAD already an express exemption to RCW 49.60.215 for “religious organization[s]” that object to providing public accommodations for same-sex weddings, thus the attempt to argue that WLAD didn’t cover marriages in secular public accommodations failed. The court also rejected the argument that the WLAD requires a balancing test between the rights of the protected class members (i.e., the public using the accommodation) and the business providing the service and the religious beliefs possibly held by the owner of the company.
    • The court also rejected the claim that the WLAD violated her right to Free Speech or Religious Exercise. The court held that the “WLAD is a neutral, generally applicable law subject to rational basis review.  And the WLAD clearly meets that standard: it is rationally related to the government’s legitimate interest in ensuring equal access to public accommodations.” (Citations omitted)

    • The court also noted that the WLAD withstands strict scrutiny review – rejecting the florist’s argument that the couple suffered no real harm:
      • We emphatically reject [the argument the couple suffered no real harm.] We agree with Ingersoll and Freed that “[t]his case is no more about access to flowers than civil rights cases in the 1960s were about access to sandwiches.” Br. of Resp’ts Ingersoll and Freed at 32. As every other court to address the question has concluded, public accommodations laws do not simply guarantee access to goods or services. Instead, they serve a broader societal purpose: eradicating barriers to the equal treatment of all citizens in the commercial marketplace. Were we to carve out a patchwork of exceptions for ostensibly justified discrimination, that purpose would be fatally undermined.

    • Finding that Supreme Court has never held that a commercial enterprise, open to the general public, is an ‘”expressive association’” for purposes of First Amendment protections, the court rejected the florist’s Free Association claim.

What this means for the LGBTQ Community in Washington

We know our experience and the experiences of our friends, people continue to discriminate based on sexual orientation and gender identity despite the laws. The best way to get compliance is to complain to the people who can command enforcement. If you experience discrimination in a public accommodation, file a complaint. The Washington State Human Rights Commission is the agency where a complaint should be filed. The Office of the Attorney General also has a complaint process.