(NBC News) - The Supreme Court on Friday declined to wade into the contentious issue of whether businesses have a right to refuse service for same-sex wedding ceremonies despite state laws forbidding them from discriminating on the basis of sexual orientation.
The court dodged the wedding question three years ago in a case involving a Colorado baker who said baking a cake to celebrate a same-sex marriage would violate his right of free expression and religious beliefs. The issue came back in an appeal brought by Barronelle Stutzman, owner of Arlene's Flowers and Gifts in Richland, Washington.
The court said Friday that it would not take up her appeal, leaving the state court rulings against her intact and again ducking the hot-button issue. Justices Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito and Neil Gorsuch said the court should have taken the case.
Stutzman refused to provide flowers for the wedding of two longtime male customers in 2013, explaining that as a Southern Baptist, it would violate her religious beliefs and her "relationship with Jesus Christ." Like the Colorado baker, she said her floral arrangements were works of art and that having to create them for same-sex weddings would trample on her freedom of expression.
State courts ruled that she broke a Washington law forbidding businesses to discriminate on the basis of several factors, including sexual orientation. The Washington Supreme Court said providing or refusing to provide flowers for a wedding "does not inherently express a message about that wedding."
After ducking the issue in the Colorado case, the U.S. Supreme Court sent Stutzman's case back for another round in the Washington courts, where she lost a second time and again appealed.
"Religious people should be free to live out their beliefs about marriage," her lawyers said in urging the Supreme Court to hear the case. They said states have taken action against calligraphers, videographers and other business that refuse to serve same-sex weddings because of their religious beliefs.
"These First Amendment violations must stop,” they said.
But the American Civil Liberties Union, representing Washington state, said Stutzman is not required to participate in any actual same-sex wedding ceremony.
The state also told the court that the florist refuses to prepare any flower arrangement for the wedding of a gay or lesbian couple, even if the arrangement is identical to one the shop’s employees would prepare for a heterosexual couple.
"It is thus clear that their objection is not to any 'message' sent by the flowers themselves, but rather to the message they perceive would be sent by serving a gay couple," lawyers for the state said.
The ACLU said courts have repeatedly ruled that there is no right to be exempt, on religious freedom grounds, from general laws that are not enacted to disfavor religious beliefs.
"All people, regardless of status, should be able to receive equal service in American commercial life," it said.