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Religious liberty of florist, bakers in courts’ hands

BELLEVUE, Wash. (BP) — A 71-year-old Washington florist and young Oregon bakers are among Christian small business owners awaiting court decisions on their right to refuse business violating their religious beliefs.

Southern Baptist florist Barronelle Stutzman is awaiting a ruling from the Washington State Supreme Court on her appeal of a judgment against her for refusing to design a floral arrangement for a gay wedding.

Aaron and Melissa Klein, forced to close their Gresham, Ore., bakery after they refused to bake a cake for a lesbian couple’s commitment ceremony, have appealed their case to the Oregon Court of Appeals.

In the case of Stutzman, Washington’s highest court heard her appeal Nov. 15 at Bellevue College in Bellevue, the latest deliberation in Stutzman’s three-year battle to live out her Christian faith that affirms marriage as a commitment between one man and one woman.

Stutzman, owner of Arlene Flowers in Richmond, is represented by Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF).

“A Muslim graphics designer should not be compelled to create designs promoting a Jewish Friends of Israel group, a gay public relations manager shouldn’t be forced to promote the Westboro Baptist Church, and a Christian floral designer shouldn’t be forced to create custom wedding designs for a wedding that is not between one man and one woman,” ADF attorney Kristen Waggoner said proceedings posted on the court’s website.

Stutzman is appealing a lower court’s Feb. 18, 2015 ruling that she violated the U.S. and state civil rights of Robert Ingersoll and Curt Freed when she refused two years earlier to design floral arrangements for their wedding. She offered instead to provide floral stems and referred them to other florists to arrange the flowers.

The lower court held Stutzman personally liable for the plaintiffs’ attorney fees and damages, putting her in danger of losing her business and personal holdings. Both the state of Washington and the couple sued Stutzman in the case stemming from the March 2013 incident.

“If the government can ruin Barronelle for peacefully living and working according to her faith, it can punish anyone else in Washington for expressing their beliefs,” Waggoner has said.

The Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission is among several groups that filed friend-of-the-court amicus briefs in support of Stutzman, the ADF reported.

The Kleins, who had operated SweetCakes by Melissa, refused in 2013 to design a custom cake for a lesbian couple’s commitment ceremony, and were fined $135,000 in 2015 after being found guilty of violating the couple’s civil rights. First Liberty Institute is awaiting oral arguments in the case, and filed its latest brief in support of the couple Sept. 8 with the Oregon Court of Appeals.

First Liberty Institute is challenging the Bureau of Labor and Industries argument that the federal government can compel citizens to create art and engage in speech that goes against their beliefs. If the court allows the final order against the Kleins to stand, First Liberty said in a press release, the court will approve governmental authority to force artists to celebrate causes that violate their conscience.

“Should the government force Catholics to sculpt totems for Wiccan rituals, or feminists to photograph fraternity initiations, or pro-life videographers to film an abortion? Of course not,” Kelly Shackelford, First Liberty Institute president and CEO, said in the press release. “No one should be forced to contribute to the celebration of an idea that goes against his or her beliefs.”

The Kleins have faced public backlash for refusing to design the cake for the lesbian couple. Labor Commissioner Brad Avakian, considered one of their detractors, was defeated in his 2016 bid to be secretary of state by Dennis Richardson, marking the first time a Republican has been elected to statewide office in Oregon since 2002, FOX News reported.