Six Times Courts Ruled That Anti-LGBTQ Religious Refusal Policies Are Discrimination

By Megan Clayton • September 8, 2017 • 1:01 am

As a nation, we decided a long time ago that businesses that are open to the public should be open to everyone on the same terms, and that includes customers who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender. Nobody should be turned away from a business, denied service, fired from their job, or evicted from their home simply because of who they are or who they love.

In recent years, however, anti-LGBTQ forces have attempted to carve out so-called “religious exemptions” in order to cause harm to LGBTQ people and their families. Such changes to common-sense notions of fairness and how we do business as Americans pose an array of threats and potentially open a legal “can of worms,” allowing people to arbitrarily pick and choose which laws to follow and which laws to violate.

Freedom of religion is important – and that’s why it’s already protected by the First Amendment to the Constitution. But that freedom doesn’t give any of us the right to impose our beliefs on others, or to discriminate.

Opponents of LGBTQ non-discrimination have often brought their efforts to discriminate to court – and this winter, the United States Supreme Court will consider this specific question in the case Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission. In the coming months it’s our duty to illustrate to the Justices that anti-LGBTQ discrimination is wrong and that a supermajority of Americans oppose anti-LGBTQ religious refusal laws. It’s also vital to remind the Supreme Court that judge after judge and court after court has not found arguments in favor of religiously motivated discrimination to be persuasive.

Take a look below at six significant legal victories in cases where opponents of LGBTQ equality failed to succeed in their efforts to create a carveout from a non-discrimination law:

Every Court to Review Masterpiece Cakeshop Rejects Anti-LGBTQ Arguments

The ACLU case Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission, coming up on the Supreme Court docket for 2017-2018, concerns a business owner in Colorado who denied service to a same-sex couple.The baker, represented by the extreme anti-LGBTQ group Alliance Defending Freedom, is seeking a religious exemption to a longstanding non-discrimination law in Colorado that prohibits discrimination in public accommodations based on sexual orientation and gender identity.

Every lower court that has heard the case has affirmed the bakery is in no way entitled to a religious exemption from the Colorado Public Accommodations Law – and that businesses open to the public must be open to all.

These include the original ruling from Judge Robert Spencer of the Colorado Office of Administrative Courts on December 6, 2013, the Colorado Civil Rights Commission on June 2, 2014, the Colorado Court of Appeals on August 13, 2015, and the Colorado Supreme Court on April 25, 2016.

If a store serves a product on the marketplace, the store owners cannot pick and choose to which customers it will serve that product. If Masterpiece Cakeshop chooses to sell wedding cakes, it may not choose to only serve non-LGBTQ couples. It must serve everyone equally, just like any other business. That’s what the U.S. Supreme Court should affirm when it hears arguments in the case this winter.

Washington Supreme Court Unanimously Sides with Equal Treatment in Arlene’s Flowers

In February 2017 the Washington Supreme Court ruled unanimously in Ingersoll v. Arlene’s Flowers that a person’s individual religious beliefs could not be used as an excuse to discriminate against a same-sex couple.

The case concerned a florist who refused to sell flowers to a same-sex couple for their wedding, which she says would have violated her religious beliefs. The ACLU represented the same-sex couple in the case, Robert Ingersoll and Curt Freed, and the florist was represented by the Alliance Defending Freedom, an extreme anti-LGBTQ organization. The florist sought a religious exemption from the Washington State non-discrimination law that has protected LGBTQ residents from discrimination based on sexual orientation in public accommodations since 2006

The plaintiff in Arlene’s Flowers has requested review of the Washington Supreme Court’s ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court.

Iowa Civil Rights Commission Affirms Non-Discrimination in Iowa

When Lee Stafford and Jared Ellars wanted to marry at Gortz Haus, a restaurant, gallery, and wedding venue open to the public in Des Moines, Iowa, they were turned away by the venue’s owners.

The couple sued the venue under Iowa’s state law that provides explicit protections from discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity, and in response, the owners of the venue, backed by a group that has worked to create anti-LGBTQ religious refusal policies, countersued, seeking an exemption from Iowa law.

The Iowa Civil Rights Commission sided with the same-sex couple, and ultimately the venue owners decided to stop holding weddings altogether in order to stop hosting same-sex couples equally.

Later, the Odgaards leveraged local interest in the case to launch a billboard campaign promoting their disapproval of marriage for same-sex couples and purporting to speak for God.

Vermont Human Rights Commission Rules That All Couples Must Be Treated Fairly

Kate Baker and Ming Linsley settled their suit against the Wildflower Inn on August 23, 2012. The business not only denied the same-sex couple use of its facilities for their wedding, but additionally tried to claim to simply be “discouraging” same-sex couples from seeking their business.

The Vermont Civil Rights Commission was not buying it, and the inn’s owners acknowledged that they had violated the law. In 2005, the same commission had prohibited discrimination based on sexual orientation, but familiar opponents Alliance Defending Freedom were attempting to carve out another exemption.

U.S. Supreme Court Denies Review of Victory in New Mexico Photographer Case

When New Mexico same-sex couple Vanessa Willock and Misti Collinsworth attempted to hire Elane Photography for their 2007 commitment ceremony, they were turned away. The issue went to court and worked its way up to the New Mexico Supreme Court, which ruled unanimously that the business’ choice to discriminate violated a state public accommodations statute that outlaws discrimination, the New Mexico Human Rights Act. The state Human Rights Commission had come to the same conclusion earlier.

On April 7, 2014, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear an appeal, without comment, leaving the victory for equal treatment in place.

U.S. District Court in Mississippi Blocks Anti-LGBTQ HB1523 From Becoming Law

In the spring of 2016 Mississippi lawmakers pushed through House Bill 1523, which would allow businesses and individuals the ability to cite their religious beliefs as an excuse to discriminate against same-sex couples, transgender people, or unmarried people who have sex. Almost immediately the Campaign for Southern Equality, the ACLU and Lambda Legal all brought cases against the blatantly discriminatory law, with the Campaign for Southern Equality asserting that the law would “favor some ‘religious beliefs’ over others.”

This toxic law passed was struck down by U.S. District Court Judge Carlton Reeves on June 30, 2016 – just minutes before it would have gone into effect.

Judge Reeves wrote, “Religious freedom was one of the building blocks of this great nation, and after the nation was torn apart, the guarantee of equal protection under law was used to stitch it back together. But HB 1523 does not honor that tradition of religion freedom, nor does it respect the equal dignity of all of Mississippi’s citizens. It is hereby ordered that the defendants; their officers, agents, servants, employees, and attorneys; and any other persons who are in active concert or participation with the defendants or their officers, agents, servants, employees, or attorneys; are hereby preliminarily enjoined from enacting or enforcing HB 1523.”

Mississippi Attorney General Jim Hood refused to appeal, stating the law had “tarnish[ed]” Mississippi’s image. Governor Phil Bryant, who signed the divisive legislation, continued to pursue the matter through private counsel, and on June 22, 2017, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit lifted the injunction, claiming plaintiffs lacked standing, since the discriminatory law hadn’t yet gone into effect. The technicality does not diminish the power and significance of Judge Reeves’ ruling.

We’ll be watching this and other cases closely. Regardless of how they turn out, LGBTQ people know that seeing their basic dignity and right to be treated fairly in public debated in court and doggedly pursued by anti-LGBTQ politicians and forces, causes real harms to the community. That’s why Freedom for All Americans and all of our partners fighting so hard in the court of law will continue to keep the pressure on wherever the threat of “carve outs” arises. Together, we will continue building undeniable forward momentum.

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