Will Court Ruling Against Christian Florist Prompt Trump to Action on Religious Freedom?

By Jim Campbell | February 24, 2017 | 12:15 PM EST

Barronelle Stutzman, center, a florist who was fined for denying service to a gay couple in 2013, holds a flower as she embraces a supporter after a hearing before Washington's Supreme Court, Tuesday, Nov. 15, 2016, in Bellevue, Wash. Stutzman was sued for refusing to provide services for a same sex-wedding and says she was exercising her First Amendment rights. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)

America’s promise of freedom forbids the government from marginalizing people, or depriving them of opportunities, because of their religious beliefs or identities. Yet the Washington Supreme Court has declared Barronelle Stutzman, a 72-year-old floral artist, unfit to work in the wedding industry because of her religious beliefs about marriage. And now, barring intervention from the U.S. Supreme Court, Barronelle stands to lose everything she owns, including personal assets like her home, life savings, and retirement funds.

Barronelle is one of the last people you would ever expect to have a run-in with the law. She’s a woman of faith who loves and serves everyone in her community, including gay and lesbian customers. She has faithfully served her gay friend and customer Rob Ingersoll for approximately a decade, creating dozens of floral arrangements for him. It was only when he asked her to design arrangements celebrating his same-sex wedding that she politely declined. And according to the Washington Supreme Court, the religious beliefs that caused her to decline that request now disqualify her from the work she loves to do.

What does this mean for people of faith? At a minimum, it means that everyone who shares Barronelle’s beliefs about marriage—beliefs that the U.S. Supreme Court in 2015 described as “decent and honorable”—cannot own a wedding business. It doesn’t matter if they’ve dreamed of being a wedding florist, coordinator, or photographer all their lives. If they plan to operate that business consistently with orthodox Christian, Jewish, or Islamic teachings, the wedding industry is off limits.

There’s something terribly unfair about that. Wedding florists from progressive faith backgrounds or with no faith at all can pursue their chosen vocations, but millions of others cannot. Creating such an unjust system—where some have opportunities that are denied to others—is antithetical to our nation’s commitment to freedom.

This ostracizing of people who adhere to one of the Abrahamic faiths isn’t limited to business owners in the wedding industry. The same anti-religious bigotry that took Barronelle’s freedom has also driven religious charities that serve underprivileged families and abandoned children out of the important work that they were doing. In the District of Columbia, for example, Catholic Charities was forced to close its foster-care and adoption programs in 2010 simply because it operated consistently with Judeo-Christian beliefs about marriage.

President Trump now has an opportunity to counteract this hostility toward religious freedom. And the first step in doing that is to sign an executive order addressing that issue.

Earlier this month, news broke that the president is contemplating such an order. The draft document leaked to the media makes it clear that all people of faith, including those who act “in accordance with the belief that marriage is or should be recognized as the union of one man and one woman,” “do not forfeit their religious freedom when . . . earning a living” or “participating in the marketplace” or the “public square.”

Signing such an order would send a strong message—that people like Barronelle should not be pushed to the margins, or barred from segments of public life, simply because of the religious beliefs they hold.

What might President Trump’s closest advisors be thinking about this issue now? According to Forbes’s Steven Bertoni, the president’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, is apparently one of the insiders who has his ear. It’s interesting to consider what Kushner, who (according to many reports) is an orthodox Jew, might think about the ongoing marginalization of people like Barronelle. While we can’t be sure of his views, it’s hard to believe that he thinks individuals who hold orthodox Judeo-Christian beliefs about marriage should be denied entrance into certain segments of society.

He and the president might realize how far the pendulum has swung against conservative Christians, Jews, and Muslims. The ruling in Barronelle’s case is a prime example of that. And they might see the need for an executive order that begins to restore balance by welcoming people from these faith traditions back into public life. Or President Trump might issue the order to honor his campaign promise to make religious liberty the “first priority” of his administration.

Some have praised the Washington Supreme Court’s ruling and argued that business owners shouldn’t be allowed to close their doors to gay and lesbian customers. But that argument misunderstands Barronelle’s case. She befriended and gladly served Rob for nearly a decade, and she would continue to serve him to this day. Also, she would sell premade floral arrangements or raw flowers for couples planning same-sex weddings. Her only conflict is with using her artistic skills to design custom arrangements that celebrate those events. Despite what some might say, Barronelle is a kind and conscientious person who deserves the freedom to live out her beliefs.

While the executive order would be a huge step in the right direction, it would not solve all the problems facing Barronelle and others like her. It wouldn’t, for example, change the outcome of Barronelle’s case. Washington’s Attorney General Bob Ferguson and the ACLU are the ones that sued her, and a federal executive order would not stop them. But it would limit federal officials’ ability to discriminate against people of faith and dissuade other governments from mistreating individuals or organizations that hold beliefs like Barronelle’s.

This raises an ironic twist. The same state attorney general (Ferguson) who launched the legal proceedings against Barronelle recently filed a lawsuit that stopped President Trump from enforcing his executive order on immigration. So in the end, it could be that Ferguson’s antagonism toward religious liberty prompts the president—his adversary on immigration—to more quickly fulfill his promise to protect religious freedom. History has seen far stranger twists of fate, but this would be one worth noting.

Jim Campbell is senior counsel with Alliance Defending Freedom, which represents Barronelle Stutzman and advocates for religious freedom in the United States and throughout the world.

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