The docket of cases the Justices of the U.S. Supreme Court will hear beginning today indicates this is likely to be the most contentious term in generations. Among the numerous items on the docket are religious liberty cases, restrictions on abortion, support for religious education, and freedom of religious speech.
The Supreme Court has an opportunity to preserve religious liberty for all people of faith, Nicole Russel writes in an opinion piece for The Washington Examiner.
“Whether it’s a religious foster organization trying to place orphaned children in homes, a single mother trying to ensure her child has access to the best private schools she can find, or houses of worship attempting to remain open during a pandemic, it’s important to observe the cases the Supreme Court hears: Its docket not only reflects current happenings and trends, but its decisions can shift cultural, religious, and legal paradigms,” Russel writes.
Although some recent cases seemed to indicate the Supreme Court would protect religious freedom, in contrast with many of its decisions in the past several decades, people of faith felt they were dealt a blow last term when the Supreme Court refused to hear the Arlene’s Flowers case.
In other recent religious liberty cases, the Supreme Court seemed to side with those petitioning for religious freedom, Forbes reports, but the Justices declined the Arlene’s Flowers case, without comment.
Arlene’s Flowers is the case of a Christian florist in Washington State who declined to create a floral arrangement for a same-sex wedding. The owner, Baronnelle Stutzman, was sued by the state of Washington and the American Civil Liberties Union in 2013 for discrimination when she decided not to create a floral arrangement that violated tenets of her faith.
Justices Thomas, Alito, and Gorsuch were willing to hear the case. The rest of the Justices, including conservatives Amy Coney Barrett and Brett Kavanaugh, voted against it. This kept the question of religious freedom in doubt by delaying clear guidance.
Stutzman, a devout Christian, said although she serves gay customers, her commitment to her religious beliefs does not allow her to use her God-given talent to create an arrangement for a same-sex wedding. In a video message, Stutzman said she has never discriminated against anyone in her life, has served many gay customers over the years, and has hired gay employees.
This is not about discrimination, but about religious freedom, Stutzman argues.
“I knew I could not create something to celebrate something that was totally against my faith,” Stutzman said.
In the matter that went to court, the customer accepted her explanation, but the Washington state attorney general did not. When Attorney General Bob Ferguson became aware of Stutzman’s refusal, in a post on social media, he sent Stutzman a letter threatening legal action if she did not create the floral arrangement. Based on a social media post, and not on a complaint filed with his office, Ferguson decided to compel the florist to create the arrangement.
“I could never do that,” Stutzman said. “I could never use a gift God gave me to violate my relationship with Him.”
Stutzman said she knew she could lose everything if the government chose to pursue her, but her faith comes first.
“These issues will continue to haunt the court, in part because of church-state precedents such as this famous language from the 1943 West Virginia v. Barnette decision, which said the government could not force Jehovah’s Witnesses to recite the Pledge of Allegiance,” writes Terry Mattingly for the Times Record News
The appeal process for Arlene’s Flowers lasted more than five years. During this time, Stutzman has been threatened and harassed Stutzman has been living in fear for her safety, she says.
Kristin Waggoner, general counsel for Alliance Defending Freedom, called the lawsuit “vindictive” and suggests other people of faith should be concerned about how this case was handled.
Normally, the process for pursuing a case would start with a complaint, yet none was filed. Usually, the initial complaint is reviewed by a human rights commission, but that was not done either, The Daily Signal reports.
“In Washington, though, the attorney general was so intent on pursuing Barronelle that it bypassed the human rights commission and took on the lawsuit itself without even going through that process,” Waggoner said on a Daily Signal podcast.
“This is about sending a message to not only people in Washington State, but to scare those on a national level and to really punish and ruin someone who doesn’t agree with the attorney general’s ideology,” Waggoner said.
What the Washington attorney general did is a threat to everyone, Waggoner says.
“Although the outcome of this case is tragic, the critical work of protecting the First Amendment freedoms of all Americans must continue,” Waggoner said in a statement after the Supreme Court refused to review the case. “No one should be forced to express a message or celebrate an event they disagree with. A government that can crush someone like Barronelle, who kindly served her gay customer for nearly a decade but simply declined to create art celebrating one sacred ceremony, can use its power to crush any of us regardless of our political ideology or views on important issues like marriage.”
In a previous case, baker Jack Phillips was supported by the Supreme Court in his decision to refuse to create a cake for a same-sex wedding. The Court’s decision, however, did not establish a general rule in favor of religious freedom in such cases.
The religious liberty cases planned for the upcoming term may give the Court a chance to provide clearer protection for matters of religious conscience.
“I was very sad,” Stutzman said upon hearing the Supreme Court decision in her case. “I was devastated. I just could not believe that our constitutional freedoms, that the Supreme court wouldn’t even hear them. That this is such a loss, not just to me, but to everybody. When you can’t practice your faith and you can’t live by your convictions, I mean, it gives Washington State and ACLU the pathway to absolutely destroy me and to threaten anybody else that would happen to think the same way.”