Which is more important in the current culture wars, civility or morality? The answer to this question is being battled out in the courts. The clashes are between the rights of gay couples to have equal protection under the law, and the rights of those who, for religious reasons, refuse to make wedding cakes or floral arrangements for gay weddings.
The U.S. Supreme Court’s June 26th ruling punted rather than decided in the Arlene’s Flowers vs. the State of Washington case, according to an article published by Adam Liptak in the “New York Times”: “The justices vacated [returned] a decision against the florist from the Washington Supreme Court and instructed it to take a fresh look at the dispute in light of this month’s [June 2018] ruling in a similar dispute involving a Colorado baker” [Masterpiece Cakeshop vs. the Colorado Civil Rights Commission]. The Court’s answer as to which should dominate, civility or morality, seems to be, “It depends.”
According to Attorney General Bob Ferguson on his state website, “We expected this procedural step.” Ferguson expects that the Court will sustain its February 2017 unanimous decision and again rule against Arlene’s Flowers and the owner, Barronelle Stutzman.
Robert Ingersoll, the gay customer of Arlene’s Flowers, had known Stutzman for almost a decade. He had bought $4500 worth of flowers from her over the years. They were friends who greeted each other with hugs when he came into the store.
According to a statement by Barronelle Stutzman, found on her attorney’s foundation website, the Alliance for the Defense of Freedom, Ingersoll never originally sued — it was Bob Ferguson who took up this case, and sent a letter to Stutzman, threatening not only the loss of her business, but also all the assets she possessed, if Stutzman did not agree to arrange wedding flowers for Ingersoll and his partner, Curt Freed.
Since Ferguson not only sued the corporation, Arlene’s Flowers, but also Stutzman herself, the stakes in the case increased dramatically, up to $1 million in legal fees and penalties.
Was Bob Ferguson being civil to the rights and religious beliefs of Stutzman, or was he acting like a bully to a 73-year-old grandmother? Was he using his prosecutorial power to gain political points for himself? Did he turn Stutzman into an object for his purposes? Did he care about the First Amendment religious protections of the “free exercise thereof” clause? The AG’s argument was that a person could believe what they wanted, they just couldn’t practice that belief. This argument flies in the face of the First Amendment protections.
Based upon the 7-2 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Masterpiece Cakeshop vs. the Colorado Civil Rights Commission decision, the Court ruled narrowly, stating the strong anti-religious bias of two of the commissioners. The majority clearly and strongly held that cake decorating (or flower arranging) is a form of free speech, and therefore protected under the First Amendment, not only on religious grounds, but also because of the right of artistic expression—free speech.
If you were the Washington State Supreme Court justices, what would you do with the Cakeshop decision?
The U.S. Supreme Court has just slapped their wrists and made them look like constitutional incompetents. Will they agree with AG Bob Ferguson, and rule in favor of civility over morality? Or, will they want to avoid being slapped down by a future Supreme Court decision that overrules them again? If you were those nine state justices, what would you do?
My guess is that the State Supreme Court will revise its decision, taking into consideration both civility and morality.
Had the State Supreme Court not acted so cavalierly in its February 2017 decision against Stutzman, they might have been able to avoid being put in the very embarrassing and difficult position in which they now find themselves.
Sometimes these culture war conflicts are better off being settled by individuals to work out on their own. Ferguson has only fanned the flames of national division in a case that would have been better left alone.