By Andrew Chung
NEW YORK (Reuters) - A Christian florist from Washington state vowed to appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court after that state's top court unanimously ruled on Thursday that she discriminated against a gay couple by refusing to sell them flowers for their wedding.
The Washington Supreme Court's nine justices said that Barronelle Stutzman, owner of Arlene's Flowers in Richland, Washington, violated a state antidiscrimination law by refusing service to Robert Ingersoll and Curt Freed, who intended to marry after the state legalized same-sex marriage in 2012.
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The court also rejected Stutzman's argument that forcing her to create floral arrangements for a same-sex wedding would violate her free speech rights under the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution and would be tantamount to endorsing same-sex marriage.
Stutzman, a member of the Southern Baptist denomination, believes that marriage should be exclusively between a man and a woman. "When you think that the government is coming in telling you what to think or what to do or what to create, we should all be very scared," she said in a call with reporters.
The state and the couple sued Stutzman in 2013, alleging that she violated state anti-discrimination and consumer protection laws. In 2015 a trial judge ruled against her, prompting the state Supreme Court to review the case.
Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson called Thursday's ruling a "a great day for equality."
The flower shop dispute is one several similar cases around the United States pressed by conservatives who object to gay marriage and say they should not be forced to violate their religious beliefs. The U.S. Supreme Court will soon decide whether to hear a case involving a Christian baker in Colorado who refused to make a wedding cake for a gay couple.
President Donald Trump's choice to fill the current vacancy on the Supreme Court, conservative appeals court judge Neil Gorsuch, could play a key role in the outcome of such a case.
His views on social issues, such as same-sex marriage, are not clear, although he has shown strong support for religious freedom.
He is best known for playing a role in deciding a 2013 case involving the Christian owners of the arts-and-crafts retailer Hobby Lobby, which allowed private companies to object on religious grounds to a federal requirement that they provide insurance covering birth control for employees.
Gorsuch's confirmation hearing in the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee is to begin on March 20.
(Reporting by Andrew Chung in New York. Additional reporting by Lawrence Hurley in Washington, D.C.; Editing by Cynthia Osterman)