Cultural Issues in the Courts: February 2017 Update

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February 16, 2017

Florist’s religious freedom appeal decided, equal access for religious gatherings, the settlement of a lawsuit involving religious freedom and an important federal administrative action are all items in this issue of the Executive Briefing Judicial Update.  

Freedom of Religion, Public Accommodations ― Washington State

A florist may not refuse to arrange flowers for a same-sex wedding based on her sincere religious beliefs about marriage, the Supreme Court of the State of Washington has held. Barronelle Stutzman, the 70-year-old grandmother and owner of Arlene’s Flowers in Richland, Washington, had appealed an earlier ruling that she had violated the state’s nondiscrimination law by refusing to use her artistic skills to provide the flower arrangements. The Court rejected her argument that her objection was to promoting a message contrary to her religious beliefs, not against homosexuals (or their sexual orientation), whom she has gladly served for many years. Ms. Stutzman could face significant monetary liability if this court result stands. She has already announced her intention to appeal the decision to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Freedom of Religion, Public Housing, Community Rooms ― Michigan

A public housing project that allows outside groups to use “community rooms” for the benefit of residents violates the First Amendment by denying use of the rooms for religious purposes, worship, or activities. That’s “viewpoint discrimination,” said a federal court in Michigan.

Freedom of Religion, Employment ― Georgia

The State of Georgia paid Dr. Eric Walsh $225,000 in settlement of a religious discrimination claim after he was fired one week after starting a job as District Health Director at the Georgia Department of Public Health. After his hiring, state officials asked for recordings of sermons he had preached as a lay pastor, and, after listening to them, decided to fire Walsh.

Privacy, Freedom of Religion, Schools ― National

In a sign the new Trump Administration may back away from the aggressive gender-identity policies of its predecessor, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) notified the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals that it would not appeal the ruling of a Texas federal judge, blocking the implementation of the 2016 joint DOJ and U.S. Department of Education “Dear Colleague” letter. The agencies’ letter offered “guidance” that “sex,” as used in Title IX (the federal education law prohibiting sex discrimination), mandated that schools open sex-segregated restrooms and locker rooms to students of the opposite sex who claimed a “gender identity” contrary to their biological sex.