Barronelle Stutzman, owner of Arlene’s Flowers in Richland, Washington (website, website 2, Facebook), may face two separate lawsuits for refusing to sell Robert Ingersoll and Curt Freed floral arrangements for their wedding because of their sexual orientation. Stutzman told the pair, who’d been customers of hers for the entirety of their nine-year relationship, that she would not transact wedding-related business with them “because of [her] relationship with Jesus.”
She explained to Dominic Holden of Seattle’s Stranger:
I believe that marriage is between a man and a woman. If they choose to get married, that’s fine, if that is what they believe. I just choose not to be a participant in the wedding.
Freed pointed out that he and Ingersoll weren’t asking Stutzman to walk them down the aisle — or participate in their wedding in any way, for that matter — just to sell them flowers. They were hurt and angry by her refusal and realized they had to speak out. As Freed explained, “We are not wanting to cause some fight or create a national debate about this, but it was wrong what happened to us.”
Indeed, Washington State passed an antidiscrimination law in 2006 that prohibits discrimination in the public square on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity. The office of Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson told Holden that if florists choose to sell wedding flowers to the public, they have to serve all couples, not discriminate against couples they don’t like.
On Tuesday, the Attorney General filed a consumer protection lawsuit against Stutzman on behalf of the State of Washington, alleging that she violated the state’s nondiscrimination law by refusing to serve Ingersoll and Freed. Yesterday, working with the ACLU of Washington, the couple sent Stutzman a letter telling her:
[Stutzman] has two options: (1) She can vow to never again discriminate in her services for gay people, write an apology letter to be published in the Tri-City Herald, and contribute $5,000 to a local LGBT youth center, or (2) she can get sued for violating the Washington State Civil Rights Act.
Basically, Stutzman has to choose between making amends and following the law or getting sued. But if her lawyers’ response to the attorney general’s lawsuit is any indication, she’s not likely to back down. Holden reports that Stutzman’s lawyers “want to make this a major test of moral conscience legal defenses” by arguing that arranging flowers is an act of “personal expression,” and any attempt by the government to interfere with said expression is a violation of Stutzman’s free speech rights.
The couple’s attorneys anticipated this argument, writing in a letter to Stutzman:
We respect your beliefs and your right to religious freedom. However, we live in a diverse country, and religious beliefs, no matter how sincerely held, may not be used to justify discrimination in the public spheres of commerce and governance. Instances of institutions and individuals claiming a right to discriminate in the name of religion are not new. Religious beliefs have been invoked to justify denying women the right to vote; to prohibit men and women of different races from getting married; and to support segregation in schools, businesses, and other public places. Just as courts have held that those forms of discrimination are not permitted, even on the basis of sincerely held religious beliefs, so is discrimination based on sexual orientation unlawful.
Stutzman has until next Wednesday, April 17, to inform the couple’s counsel whether or not she will agree to their terms. But as Holden points out, it looks as though she’ll choose the path of phony martyrdom and become the next “religious liberty” poster child for the Christian Right instead. (I can see the alarmist email subject lines now!)
This situation reminds me of one that happened recently right here in Vermont, where two Catholic innkeepers refused to host a lesbian couple’s wedding reception, citing their anti-gay religious beliefs. The lesbian couple and the ACLU sued under Vermont’s Fair Housing and Public Accommodations Act and reached an out-of-court settlement with the innkeepers, who continue to falsely claim they were targeted because of their opposition to marriage equality.
Similar incidents of anti-gay privilege tantrums have occurred in New York, Massachusetts, and the UK, and my prediction is that we’ll see more and more of these as marriage equality continues to advance and same-sex marriage opponents find themselves increasingly relegated to the extreme fringes of society.
Of course, the claim that a person’s religious beliefs entitle them to pick and choose which members of the public to serve or which laws to obey is patently absurd. After all, one’s religious freedom does not come at the expense of everyone else’s liberty, nor do an individual’s religious choices magically grant them a special right to discriminate. But it looks like that’s an argument that the Christianists intend to make for a very long time.
That’s all right, though. We’re not going anywhere. And we’ll keep the lawsuits coming until anti-gay business owners understand that they have to treat LGBT people and their families exactly the same as they would anyone else.