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Supreme Court spurns bid from Washington florist who declined to make arrangement for gay wedding

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Washington — The Supreme Court on Friday turned away an appeal from a florist in Washington state who declined to make an arrangement for a gay couple's wedding because of her religious beliefs, spurning another legal battle that pits religious freedom against LGBTQ rights.

In declining to hear the case of Barronelle Stutzman, the owner of Arlene's Flowers, the high court leaves in place a lower court ruling that found she violated a state civil rights law that bars discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. Three of the court's conservative justices, Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito and Neil Gorsuch, said they would have heard the case.

Stutzman's case was the latest to land before the justices that pits religious liberty against LGBTQ rights. In rejecting the case, the high court leaves unanswered the question of whether business owners who cite their religious beliefs can refuse service for same-sex weddings despite state anti-discrimination laws.

This term, the Supreme Court said in an unanimous decision that the city of Philadelphia was wrong to end its foster care contract with Catholic Social Services because it refused to work with same-sex couples.

Stutzman asked the Supreme Court to hear her case in 2017. In 2018, the justices sent it back to a lower court in light of its ruling in a dispute involving Colorado baker Jack Phillips, who refused to bake a wedding cake for a gay couple. In that narrow decision, the high court ruled in favor of the baker, saying the Colorado Civil Rights Commission was hostile to Phillips' faith and did not act neutrally toward his religion.

The dispute involving Stutzman dates back to 2013, when she declined to make a floral arrangement for a gay couple's wedding because of her religious beliefs. Upon learning of the incident, the Washington state attorney general and the couple, Robert Ingersoll and Curt Freed, each sued Stutzman, arguing she violated a state law that bars discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation in public accommodations. 

Stutzman, however, argued the state violated her First Amendment rights by compelling her to express celebratory messages that violate her faith.

The Washington Supreme Court twice found Stutzman violated the state civil rights law and, after the second time considering the case, said neither it nor a state superior court acted with religious animus toward Stutzman or her business. The state high court also upheld a $1,000 fine against Stutzman.

The decision of the Washington Supreme Court remains intact with the Supreme Court's rejection of the case.

In addition to Stutzman's case, the Supreme Court also declined to hear a property rights dispute between a Chicago land owner and the city. Justice Brett Kavanaugh said he would hear the dispute, and Thomas dissented from the court's denial of the appeal.

Fred Eychaner, who owns the vacant land at the center of the dispute, challenged the city's use of eminent domain to take his property and give it to a chocolate company to keep it from relocating away from Chicago.

He asked the Supreme Court to invalidate the city's taking of his land and limit the government's authority to seize private land for public use, which grew under the Supreme Court's 2005 decision in Kelo v. City of New London.

The land Eychaner owns in Chicago's River West neighborhood is located two blocks north of a factory owned by the Blommer Chocolate Company. But in 2005, the city moved to seize his lot through eminent domain to give it to Blommer. The company had warned city officials it would leave Chicago because of its proposed placement in the city's planned manufacturing district, but withdrew its objection after the city offered to expand its campus to include Eychaner's land.

To justify the taking, the Chicago City Council determined the area encompassing Eychaner's land "may become a blighted area." But as of 2017, the "future blight" predicted by the city hasn't materialized, according to Eychaner's petition with the Supreme Court. Instead, the area is a mixed-use area, and Eychaner's land has increased in value, he said.

Court proceedings involving Chicago's use of eminent domain to take Eychaner's property have been ongoing since 2005, when he first argued in state court that the city's exercise of eminent domain violated the U.S. and state Constitutions.

A state appellate court twice said the city could use the power of eminent domain to prevent future blight and found the taking was a permissible public use under the Constitution. Eychaner then appealed to the Supreme Court of Illinois, which in September denied his petition.

Thomas, joined by Gorsuch, said Eychaner's case provided the Supreme Court with the "opportunity to correct the mistake the court made in Kelo."

"That decision was wrong the day it was decided. And it remains wrong today," he wrote, adding the legal battle also gave the high court the chance to clarify the limits of the Constitution's public use clause.

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