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Court punts, again, on major religious liberty case

by TERRY MATTINGLY | July 10, 2021 at 2:42 a.m.

Florist Barronelle Stutzman and Robert Ingersoll have shared many details from the 2013 conversation that changed their lives and, perhaps, trends in First Amendment law.

For nine years, Ingersoll was a loyal customer at Arlene's Flowers in Richland, Wash. His purchases included special work Stutzman did for Valentine's Day and for Ingersoll's anniversaries with his partner, Curt Freed. Then, a year after the state legalized same-sex marriages, Ingersoll asked Stutzman to design the flower arrangements for his wedding.

Stutzman took his hand, Ingersoll recalled, and said: "You know I love you dearly. I think you are a wonderful person, but my religion doesn't allow me to do this."

In a written statement to the Christian Science Monitor, Ingersoll wrote: "While trying to remain composed, I was ... flooded with emotions and disbelief of what just happened." He knew many Christians rejected gay marriage but was stunned to learn this was true for Stutzman.

As stated in recent U.S. Supreme Court documents: "Barronelle Stutzman is a Christian artist who imagines, designs and creates floral art. ... She cannot take part in or create custom art that celebrates sacred ceremonies that violate her faith."

This legal drama appears to have ended with Stutzman's second trip to the high court, and its July 2 refusal to review a Washington Supreme Court decision that drew a red line between a citizen's right to hold religious beliefs and the right to freely exercise these beliefs in public life. Supreme Court justices Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito and Neil Gorsuch backed a review, but lacked a fourth vote.

"This was shocking" to religious conservatives "because Barronelle seemed to have so many favorable facts on her side," said Andrew Walker, who teaches ethics at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.

Stutzman is a 76-year-old grandmother and great-grandmother who faces the loss of her small business and her retirement savings. She has employed gay staff members. She helped Ingersoll find another designer for his wedding flowers. In the progressive Northwest, her Southern Baptist faith clearly makes her part of a religious minority.

"Barronelle is a heretic because she has clashed with today's version of progressivism," Walker said. Many cultures have "blasphemy laws" and Stutzman has "been found guilty ... Her beliefs, and her insistence that she should live according to those beliefs, clash with the beliefs of the current zeitgeist."

Part of the confusion is that this court's refusal to hear Stutzman's case appears to clash with its recent 9-0 Fulton v. City of Philadelphia decision. It protected the right of Catholic Social Services leaders to follow church teachings and, thus, to refuse to refer children to same-sex couples for adoption or foster care.

Responding to that decision, Roger Severino of the Ethics & Public Policy Center in Washington wrote: "By its actions, the Court is saying people with sincere faith-informed understandings of social issues that cut against the grain of secularist thought aren't to be treated as bigots."

That was then. The subsequent decision to "punt" on the Stutzman case, said Walker, was another example of this Supreme Court delaying a clear decision on First Amendment concerns caused by clashes between ancient faiths and the Sexual Revolution.

These concerns 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.

"If there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation," wrote Justice Robert Jackson, "it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion or other matters of opinion, or force citizens to confess by word or act their faith therein."

These clashes are a reminder, Walker noted in his new book, "Liberty for All," that questions about "authority" and "adoration" are at "the center of what it means to be human."

No matter what happens in American law, he argued that Christians should affirm that "every individual, regardless of their religious confession, is equally free to believe, or not to believe, and to live out their understanding of the conscience's duty, individually and communally, that is owed to God in all areas of life without threat of government penalty or social harassment. ... Nothing less than personhood is at stake."

Terry Mattingly leads GetReligion.org and lives in Oak Ridge, Tenn. He is a senior fellow at the Overby Center at the University of Mississippi.

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