We were approached by Sarah Dunne, Legal Director for the ACLU Foundation of Washington, and asked to take on the case pro bono. Although representing a significant investment for the firm (hundreds of hours in donated attorney time), my partners immediately recognized the case’s significance as a civil rights issue, and wholeheartedly approved our involvement.
We prevailed in the ruling because of two key arguments:
- Violation of the State Civil Rights Act: The Washington State Civil Rights Act, known as the Washington Law Against Discrimination, prohibits discrimination because of sexual orientation. RCW 49.60.030. The right to be free from discrimination includes the right to “full enjoyment of any of the accommodations, advantages, facilities, or privileges of any place of public resort, accommodation, assemblage, or amusement. . . .” Id. The statute defines “any place of public resort, accommodation, assemblage, or amusement” to include any place “for the sale of goods, merchandise [or] services. . . .” Id. This definition clearly includes businesses such as Arlene’s Flowers, and prohibits Arlene’s Flowers and other similar businesses from refusing to sell goods, merchandise, and services to any person because of their sexual orientation.
- Religious Beliefs No Defense: Arlene’s Flowers refused to provide flowers to our clients for their wedding citing religious beliefs. While they have the right of religious freedom, we live in a diverse country, and religious beliefs, no matter how sincerely held, may not be used to justify discrimination in the public spheres of commerce and governance. Instances of institutions and individuals claiming a right to discriminate in the name of religion are not new. Religious beliefs have been invoked to justify denying women the right to vote; to prohibit men and women of different races from getting married; and to support segregation in schools, businesses, and other public places. Just as courts have held that those forms of discrimination are not permitted, even on the basis of sincerely held religious beliefs, so is discrimination based on sexual orientation unlawful.
In its ruling the court said, “Defendants’ refusal to ‘do the flowers’ for Ingersoll and Freed’s wedding based on her religious opposition to same sex marriage is, as a matter of law, a refusal based on Ingersoll and Freed’s sexual orientation in violation of the WLAD.”
Further, the court stated, “No Court has ever held that religiously motivated conduct, expressive or otherwise, trumps state discrimination law in public accommodations. The Defendants have provided no legal authority why it should.”
As thrilled as we are by this ruling, we believe Arlene’s Flowers will appeal it, potentially all the way to the Washington Supreme Court. My colleagues and I, with full support of the firm, are committed to continuing the fight all the way on a pro bono basis. We are confident that the ruling will be upheld, and will keep GSBA members updated on new developments.
Mike Scott is a GSBA member and Chair of the Litigation Group at Seattle’s Hillis Clark Martin & Peterson P.S. His practice focuses on litigation involving a wide variety of commercial disputes in state and federal trial and appellate courts, and in arbitration and mediation forums.