Supreme Court puts off further rulings on partisan gerrymandering and religion vs. same-sex weddings

Arlene's Flowers is shown in Richland, Wash., in 2013.
(Bob Brawdy / AP)

After failing to fully resolve two difficult cases this term, the Supreme Court signaled Monday it was still not ready to decide whether a Christian shop owner can refuse service to a same-sex wedding or when some states have gone too far in gerrymandering their election maps for partisan advantage.

The justices said they would not hear two similar cases in the fall, instead sending them back to lower courts to be reconsidered under the hazy standards recently issued by the high court.

The brief orders, issued without registered dissents, suggest the justices are essentially deadlocked on both issues for now.


Justice Anthony M. Kennedy usually acts as the tiebreaker in close cases, but he apparently declined this month to decide on the constitutionality of partisan gerrymandering or whether store owners can claim a religious exemption from a state civil rights law that requires equal treatment for all customers, including gays and lesbians.

The court sent back a pending appeal from a florist in Richland, Wash., who was convicted of violating the state’s civil rights law for refusing to provide a floral arrangement for a wedding of two men.

The court’s one-line order on Monday said Washington state judges should reconsider the case “in light of Masterpiece Cakeshop vs. Colorado.”

In that case, the justices, by a 7-2 vote, ruled narrowly for a Colorado baker, but without deciding whether he had a right to refuse service to two men who were preparing to celebrate their marriage. Instead, the court ruled only that members of the state civil rights commission made comments that reflected a “hostility to religion.”

Lawyers for the Alliance Defending Freedom had filed a similar appeal in the case from the state of Washington.

They described Barronelle Stutzman, the owner of Arlene’s Flowers, as a 72-year-old grandmother and a “floral design artist.” She said she had known Robert Ingersoll as a longtime customer and a friend, but said she told him she could not help with his impending wedding “because of my relationship with Jesus Christ.”


Lawyers for the state quietly urged her to comply with the state’s civil rights law, but sued her when she refused. A judge ruled the florist had violated the state law and fined her $1,000.

In her appeal, she urged the Supreme Court to rule that she had a free speech right to refuse to provide “artistic expression” to celebrate a same-sex wedding. She also said that requiring her to provide flowers violated her right to the “free exercise of religion.”

Both claims were before the justices in the case of the Colorado baker.

The justices had held the appeal in Arlene’s Flowers vs. Washington while they decided the Colorado case.

Meanwhile, North Carolina Republicans had appealed a federal ruling that struck down the state’s congressional districts. The map gave the GOP a lopsided 10-3 margin in its delegation to the House of Representatives.

But rather than decide the appeal, the justices said the lower court should reconsider the case of Rucho vs. Common Cause “in light of Gill vs. Whitford,” the Wisconsin case. Last week, the justices said only that the plaintiffs in Wisconsin did not have standing to seek a statewide order because they lived in just a few districts.

In both cases — from Washington and North Carolina — the judges are likely to reissue their rulings, thereby sending the appeal back to the Supreme Court later this year.

The high court did decide on Monday a long-running racial gerrymandering case from Texas, ruling 5-4 in favor of its Republican-controlled Legislature.

After the 2010 census showed a big jump in the state’s Latino population, the Legislature was accused of drawing electoral maps that did not translate these demographic changes into political power for Latinos.

A three-judge federal court in Texas ruled that the state maps were discriminatory under the Voting Rights Act and must be redrawn. The state agreed and adopted a map that judges in Texas had authorized for use in the 2012 election. The state thought it had resolved the matter.

However, in a second round of litigation, the three-judge panel ruled the state had not “cured” its discriminatory map, and it ordered further changes in state legislative districts.

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott appealed, and the high court ruled for the state Monday in Abbott vs. Perez. Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. said the state Legislature faced a “legal obstacle course” and adopted districts that were earlier accepted by judges there. It was a “fundamental legal error” to brand this as racial discrimination, he said. Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justices Kennedy, Clarence Thomas and Neil M. Gorsuch agreed.

In dissent, Justice Sonia Sotomayor faulted the court for denying fully equal voting rights to Latinos in Texas. This poses “serious costs to our democracy,” she wrote. “It means that, after years of litigation and proof of intentional discrimination, minority voters in Texas will continue to be underrepresented in the political process.” Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen G. Breyer and Elena Kagan agreed.

Sherrilyn Ifill, president of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, said the ruling “lets lower courts and lawmakers shirk their responsibility to uproot racial discrimination embedded in electoral maps.”

Texas Atty. Gen. Ken Paxton said the court had “rightly recognized that the Constitution protects the right of Texans to draw their own legislative districts. Once again, Texans have the power to govern themselves.”

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2:40 p.m.: This story was updated with details about the Texas case.

8:25 a.m.: This story was updated with more background about the cases.

7 a.m.: This story was updated with the gerrymandering case.

This story was originally published at 6:50 a.m.