OLYMPIA, Wash. — Baronelle Stutzman has been fighting the state of Washington for her right to religious freedom for three and a half years. On Nov. 16, the florist’s attorneys fought what could be her final stand, in front of Washington’s Supreme Court, to defend her right to decline to serve a same-sex couple’s “wedding.”
In 2013, Stutzman was sued by a former customer, Robert Ingersoll, as well as the state of Washington, for not providing Ingersoll and his partner Curt Freed with flowers for their upcoming “wedding.” Stutzman had served Ingersoll for years, and according to a trial court that ruled against Stutzman, she knew her flowers were being used for the relationship between Ingersoll and Freed.
However, Stutzman drew the line at creating arrangements for a ceremony her Southern Baptist faith did not approve of, for the reason that her participation would be seen as approval of the ceremony.
Stutzman did recommend other florists for Ingersoll and Freed to hire.
The two men sued on April 9, a day after the state filed a lawsuit declaring that Stutzman was in violation of the state’s “nondiscrimination” law. Ingersoll and Freed sought almost $8 in transportation costs to go to another florist. A judge ordered Stutzman to pay a $1,000 fine to the state plus $1 for court costs and fees for violating the state law. Stutzman’s attorneys appealed to the state’s highest court last year.
Alliance Defending Freedom attorney Kristen Waggoner told the Register, “If she loses, she stands to lose everything she owns. The civil penalty is not that significant; it’s capped at $2,000. It’s the attorneys’ fees that will threaten to take away everything she owns. We filed motions to dismiss those claims against her personal liability, and the state and the ACLU fought us on this.”
An ACLU attorney told the Register that the financial penalty for violating the law must be large enough for people to prefer following, as opposed to breaking, the law. But she also said the fine isn’t the key issue.
“These kinds of cases are not about the dollar amount at stake,” said Elizabeth Gil. “When you have a situation where folks, because of race, are being turned away at lunch counters and hotels, the harm inflicted there is not just about the amount of money at stake. It’s not about what they spent at lunch. That’s not the kind of harm we’re talking about.”
Waggoner told the Register that the ACLU, which has compared Stutzman to racists of the Jim Crow era, is providing “a false comparison” between Stutzman and racists. “The objection that Mrs. Stutzman has … is based on the message — what she’s asked to convey in that message — not based on the person. And that distinction has been recognized in the Obergefell decision by the Supreme Court.”
“The court said there that reasonable, honest, sincere people have appropriate religious and philosophical premises for believing that marriage is between a man and a woman. If you contrast [that] with how the Supreme Court has treated invidious discrimination on race, they have said there is no rational purpose for that, and all it is about is white supremacy,” continued Waggoner.
Waggoner and Gil also disagreed on whether there can be a distinction between sexual orientation — which is what the state law addresses — and relationships and ceremonies, which is where Stutzman drew the line. “I think in this context, status and context are inextricably linked,” Gil told the Register. “Because when you’re talking about someone’s sexual orientation, it is who we’re attracted to and fall in love with and marry. The U.S. Supreme Court has been clear that when you’re distinguishing in this kind of context — as with others, when you’re discriminating against a wedding of a same-sex couple — that is discriminating based on sexual orientation, because it’s the status and the context and the conduct [that] are so closely connected.”
She said that the ACLU attorney who argued in front of the Washington Supreme Court referenced a 1993 U.S. Supreme Court decision where then-Justice Antonin Scalia wrote, “A tax on yarmulkes is an attack on Jews.”
But Waggoner countered that there was “absolutely” a difference between sexual orientation and decisions made about that orientation. “The [U.S. Supreme] Court has already ruled on that, as well, in the Hurley decision,” said Waggoner, referencing a 1995 decision in which the court unanimously held that the organizers of Boston’s St. Patrick’s Day Parade were permitted to exclude a homosexual-rights group from marching in the privately sponsored event. “It’s a U.S. Supreme Court decision where the court distinguished between homosexual conduct and suppressing free speech.”
According to Waggoner, “The crux of this case lies in: Are we going to force people to say things and create things that they don’t want to create or say?”
Travis Weber, director of the Family Research Council’s Center for Religious Liberty, agreed with Waggoner about Stutzman’s position.
“The First Amendment grants her the protection to hold the religious beliefs of her choice and to live out those beliefs. Moreover, the state has no interest and no legitimate reason to force her to be complicit in a process which would violate her conscience, when so many other small businesses would happily fulfill that role.”
According to Weber, racial discrimination and Stutzman’s actions “are absolutely not the same thing. I’m not even sure the ACLU and others who make that claim even believe it.
“Christians are objecting to certain matters which violate their consciences — not to serving all people who identify as LGBT. So what is occurring is not even the same dynamic as what occurred during our racial tragedies of the past.”
Dominican Sister Sharon Park, the executive director of the Washington State Catholic Conference, said the Church considers cases like Stutzman’s from the perspective of the rights of conscience.
“Our teachings would hold very strongly that every human person deserves the dignity that God gave them. So that doesn’t matter on their orientation; it doesn’t matter who they are,” she explained. “They still have a basic dignity, and we must treat them accordingly.”
However, Sister Sharon added that it was important “to follow one’s own conscience” as long as the conscience is properly formed. She noted that “because [Stutzman] served that same-sex couple for years, giving them flowers,” and then “when it came to marriage, she held that her faith holds that’s God-given between a man and a woman,” she held a clear belief about where her conscience falls on the issue of serving same-sex couples’ wedding ceremonies.
Sister Sharon noted that the state appears to be distinguishing “between religious liberty and discrimination. That’s the crux of the lawsuit itself. [The state is saying] she can believe whatever she wants, but she can’t act on it. We’re saying: One always acts on one’s conscience.”
Register correspondent Dustin Siggins writes from Washington, D.C.