Washington State Sues Florist For Refusing to Serve Gay Couple
In a case that both sides of the marriage debate are closely following, the attorney general for Washington State has decided to sue a florist for refusing to provide flowers for a gay couple’s upcoming wedding.
The Seattle Post-Intelligencer reports that State Attorney General Bob Ferguson filed a consumer protection lawsuit against Barronelle Stutzman, the owner of Arlene’s Flowers & Gifts, on Tuesday. The flower shop is located in Richland, in the eastern end of the state and far both geographically and politically from the far more liberal Puget Sound cities of Seattle and Tacoma.
Stutzman told Robert Ingersoll that her religious beliefs were not a legal basis for refusing service to anyone. Before filing the suit, Ferguson sent a letter to Stutzman on March 28 and asked her to reconsider her decision and comply with Washington’s anti-discrimination laws by supplying flowers to the couple.
"As Attorney General, it is my job to enforce the laws of the state of Washington," Ferguson said. "Under the Consumer Protection Act, it is unlawful to discriminate against customers based on sexual orientation. If a business provides a product or service to opposite-sex couples for their weddings, then it must provide same sex couples the same product or service."
The attorney general’s office’s is seeking a permanent injunction that would require Stutzman to comply with the law. The florist would also be fined $2,000 every time she violates the law.
By thus framing the issue, Ferguson’s office made it clear that the legalization of same-sex marriage is not at issue, because the consumer law predates the December 2012 implementation of same-sex marriages after voters approved a referendum the month before.
That hasn’t stopped those opposed marriage equality, however. They insist that that the case against Stutzman, who says she is not anti-gay but that just opposes gay marriage, is only the first of many such cases wherever marriage equality becomes legal.
According to the Seattle Times, Stutzman’s lawyer, JD Bristol, argues that the claims against the florist being anti-gay is "nonsense." "This is about gay marriage, it’s not about a person being gay. She has a conscientious objection to homosexual marriage, not homosexuality," he said.
The issue here isn’t prejudice against a group, but rather a personal objection to an event, Britstol told The Bellingham (Wash.) Herald. "The objection isn’t because the client is gay, it’s because of the event," Bristol told the newspaper. "That’s based on a religious sentiment."
One could argue that, taking Bristol’s point to its natural conclusion, a restaurant could refuse service to someone’s wedding, for example, because one or both of the parties had been divorced, and the owner doesn’t recognize the legitimacy of divorces. Or to a Jew and a Christian because the owner doesn’t believe such marriages are valid in the eyes of one’s church.
The incident first made headlines in March when Ingersoll and his partner, Curt Freed, who say they have been regular customers of Arlene’s Flowers & Gifts for 10 years, put their story online. Even after going viral, Stutzman refused to change her position.
"It’s a personal conviction," she said at the time. "It’s not a matter of being right or wrong. It’s my belief."
Last month, Stutzman recalled, Ingersoll told Stutzman that he was getting married. "Before he got through, I grabbed his hand and said, ’I am sorry. I can’t do your wedding because of my relationship with Jesus Christ.’ We hugged each other and he left, and I assumed it was the end of the story."
The ACLU has proposed a settlement whereby Stutzman would agree to provide service to all customers, write the couple a letter of apology, and donate $5,000 to a local center serving LGBT youth.
Once the Religious Right got wind of the story, it became a stalking point in the the chorus of Jeremiahs warning of an upcoming "persecution" of Christians who oppose marriage equality.
"A private business owner (florist, baker, B & B owner etc) has the right to refuse service to anyone based on their moral/religious viewpoints" was a typical comment on the ultra-conservative website Free Republic.
"Everyone get ready for many more lawsuits such as this one to any business that doesn’t go the gay way," another commenter warned. "Churches will be sued by the feds too. It is all part of the destruction of this country agenda."
The Family Policy Institute, a statewide group, is seeking Washingtonians willing to lobby state officials.
"We will be helping to assemble Washington citizens to support this small business and communicate to our elected officials that this harassment is not being done with the consent of the governed," Executive Director Joseph Blackholm wrote in a release quoted by the Bellingham Herald.
The National Organization for Marriage predictably leaped to Stutzman’s defense. "Like clockwork, those who disagree with gay marriage are being fined and forced out of the public square by the state-imposed redefinition of marriage" went a recent blog.
"No one notified Ms. Stutzman that under the new regime, kindness and understanding, while holding true to your convictions, cannot be tolerated." the Policy Institute wrote on its website. "Should a pacifist web designer be fined for telling the National Rifle Association he would rather not design their website? Should the Republican printer be required to print campaign literature for the Democrats?"
Bryan Fisher of the American Family Association called the action "homofascism"in a tweet.
Focus on the Family’s Tony Perkins’ tweet rhetorically asked, "Redefining marriage won’t effect you, right?"
Lifesite News warned on its website, "The combination of legalizing same-sex marriage’ [sic] and odious ’anti-discrimination’ laws have faithful Christians saying their freedom of religion is being violated."