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Attorney general says that Barronelle Stutzman violated a state consumer-protection law when she turned down business from a homosexual couple.
BY SUE ELLEN BROWDER
RICHMOND, Wash. — Since being sued for declining to use her flower-arranging talents to adorn a same-sex “wedding,” Barronelle Stutzman has seen her flower-shop business blossom.
Local community support for her 47-year-old shop, Arlene’s Flowers & Gifts, has been “absolutely fantastic,” Stutzman cheerfully told the Register. “We’ve had more walk-in traffic than ever. People have come in to order $100 bouquets and donate $50 for our legal expenses.”
The hullabaloo erupted last week, after Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson filed a lawsuit claiming that Stutzman, 68, violated a 2006 state consumer-protection law that says you can’t refuse to sell goods and services based on a person’s sexual orientation.
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has stepped in to represent the homosexual couple.
An ACLU letter to Arlene’s Flowers, dated April 10, makes three demands: It asks that Stutzman stop refusing to serve customers based on sexual orientation, publish an apology in the Tri-City Herald and donate $5,000 to the Vista Youth Center, advertised as a place for “gay, bi, trans, queer, questioning and allied youth.”
At this writing, the ACLU had received no response to the letter.
How the Conflict Arose
Robert Ingersoll, a homosexual who is planning a fall “wedding” with his male partner, had been Stutzman’s customer for nine years.
But when he asked her to do the flowers for his upcoming “wedding,” Stutzman declined, explaining she would have to pass because of her “relationship with Jesus Christ.”
According to Stutzman, the two hugged and parted respectfully.
But, later, the rejection began to gnaw at Ingersoll. “It really hurt because it was somebody I knew,” he told the Tri-City Herald. “We laid awake all night Saturday. It was eating at our souls. There was never a question she’d be the one to do our flowers. She does amazing work.”
After Ingersoll and his partner posted their disappointment on Facebook, a whirlwind erupted, as people weighed in with often highly intense opinions on the matter.
The story gained global attention when it was picked up by the Huffington Post.
Seeing the story in the news, Washington’s attorney general got involved, suing Arlene’s Flowers for violating a consumer-protection law prohibits discriminating against a person on the basis of his or her sexual orientation.
The attorney general’s website states that one consideration the state uses in selecting cases for legal action is “how likely our action will be in discouraging unfair practices in the future.”
The lawsuit would force Arlene’s Flowers to provide services to same-sex couples for their “weddings.” A $2,000 fine would be levied for each failure to do so.
Genderless ‘Marriage’ vs. Religious Freedom
But attorney Justin Bristol, who represents Stutzman, said the attorney general has his story wrong.
“Arlene’s Flowers didn’t refuse to sell flowers because of any customer’s sexual orientation. They’ve been selling flowers and floral arrangements to openly gay customers for many years,” Bristol said.
Rather, in this case, Arlene’s Flowers “respectfully declined to use its artistic talents to create floral arrangements for a gay ‘wedding’” on religious grounds.
Bristol said Stutzman’s religious rights are protected under the First Amendment and that she cannot be forced to use her talents to arrange flowers for a same-sex “wedding” any more than a musician can be forced to write a song.
In response, Attorney General Ferguson said, “I respect everyone’s ability to exercise their freedom of religion. As an individual, Ms. Stutzman is entitled to religious freedom and expression of her beliefs. However, as a business owner, she must follow Washington state law, which prohibits discrimination in the marketplace — including on the basis of race, religion and sexual orientation.”
ACLU communications director Doug Honig told the Register, “If a business open to the general public sells goods to heterosexual couples for weddings, under state law it must sell goods to a gay couple. Religious views don’t give business owners a free pass to discriminate.”
Joseph Backholm of the Family Policy Institute of Washington State linked the current situation to Washington voters’ approval of a referendum last November that redefined “marriage” as being between two “persons” rather than between a man and a woman.
“Now that the law says marriage is genderless,” Backholm observed, “those who think otherwise are much more likely to be confronted with the Hobbesian choice to conform or be punished.”
Religious Liberty Redefined?
Now that the definition of marriage has been changed in the state of Washington, Backholm said, the definition of religious liberty is also being redefined.
“The reason why many of the Founding Fathers of this country left Europe was because they did not want to have a religious or philosophical litmus test for engaging in civil society,” Backholm said. “This new crew has the idea that religious freedom exists within the four walls of the church but once you leave you abide by state dogma. That’s precisely what our country was founded in opposition to.”
Backholm urged Washington residents “to recognize the seriousness of the attorney general of our state initiating a lawsuit against a small-business owner who has a position he personally does not agree with, which leads her to make a decision with her business that is different than the one he would make. It’s totalitarian.”
Backholm’s Family Policy Institute has set up an Arlene’s Flowers Defense Fund on its website to receive donations for Stutzman’s legal expenses.
Other pro-family organizations are also expressing support for Stutzman’s right to provide her commercial services in accordance with her own religious beliefs.
Family Research Council's president, Tony Perkins, noted that marriage is more than “just about two people who love each other.” He said that “it’s also about the florists, the bakers, the candlestick makers and everyone else the left wants to force to endorse their relationship.”
Attorney Bristol said the attorney general’s action violates constitutional guarantees of religious freedom and free speech.
“If the state of Washington forces the owners of Arlene’s to compromise their religious values and espouse the state’s views,” he said, “the state is in clear violation of both the U.S. and state constitutional guarantees of not only freedom of religious exercise (which includes the freedom to abstain from activity in violation of conscience), but the guarantees of free expression as well.”
Said Bristol, “The state cannot compel someone to advocate a particular position on a controversial moral issue.”
Meanwhile, Stutzman stands calmly in the eye of the storm, trusting in God to bring good out of the chaotic situation.
“Good always comes with bad,” she said cheerfully. “I’m thrilled to see what God is going to do next.”
Register correspondent Sue Ellen Browder writes from Ukiah, California.