A Washington florist is being sued by State Attorney General Bob Ferguson for refusing to provide wedding bouquets for a same-sex couple, apparently because of her religious beliefs. While this may sound an innocuous case, expect it to be the media darling of the Religious Right.
“As Attorney General, it is my job to enforce the laws of the state of Washington,” said Ferguson in a statement. “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.”
Curt Freed, who works as a faculty member at Columbia Basin College, and Robert Ingersoll, a manager at Goodwill, are, after a nine year relationship, planning a wedding for September 2013.
They have been costumers at Arlene’s Flowers on many occasions. As such, Ingersoll approached the florist on March 1 of this year asking her to arrange flowers for the event. The florist in question, Barronelle Stutzman, politely refused. She cited her “relationship with Jesus Christ” and her belief that marriage is between a man and woman only.
The AG’s office originally sent a letter to Stutzman warning her of the legal ramifications of her actions and encouraging out-of-court mediation on grounds she agree to comply with the law and make a public statement to that effect. She has so far refused, as evidenced by a posting on the shop’s Facebook account, and the deadline of April 17 is fast approaching.
Ferguson’s office on Tuesday filed a complaint in Benton County Superior Court asking for a permanent injunction requiring Arlene’s Flowers & Gifts to comply with the law, and that a $2,000 fine be imposed for every violation.
It is unusual, and perhaps even unprecedented, for Washington’s Attorney General to file a suit in this manner. The normal process would be to register a complaint with the state’s Human Rights Commission and for it to assess the claim and, if necessary, proceed to trial.
However, and while acknowledging this fact, Ferguson has said that the Commission has so far failed to act and that, given this case deals with consumer protection, he has the authority and the responsibility to intervene.
Stutzman’s lawyers have come out swinging though, saying that they will “vigorously” defend in federal court Stutzman’s right to express her religious beliefs.
Does Washington’s Marriage Equality Law Carry Exemptions on Religious Grounds?
Yes, but Stutzman isn’t covered.
While Washington’s marriage equality law does highlight existing protections as set out in the Constitution that prevent clergy members being compelled to perform same-sex weddings against their beliefs, and which also wards against the forced use of churches for such ceremonies, a florist simply isn’t covered by religious affiliation, despite how sincere Stutzman may be about her beliefs.
This means Stutzman’s conduct is subject to anti-discrimination and consumer protection laws which prohibit discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation, among other enumerated classes, and prevents businesses from refusing to sell goods, merchandise or services on such grounds.
The courts have repeatedly affirmed that religious belief does not and cannot trump state law when it comes to public accommodations.
The ACLU Files a Separate Lawsuit
The ACLU has also announced that it will be representing the couple in a separate discrimination suit. Through the suit, the couple in question is seeking the following remedies (as shown on the Washington ACLU website):
- That Arlene’s Flowers agree not to refuse to provide flowers and other goods and services to any person on the basis of his or her sexual orientation.
- That Arlene’s Flowers agree to write a letter of apology to Mr. Freed and Mr. Ingersoll to be published in the Tri-City Herald.
- That Arlene’s Flowers agree to donate $5,000 to the Vista Youth Center in Kennewick, in lieu of payment of attorney’s fees.
“The refusal to sell flowers to the couple hurt them deeply. It is a disturbing reminder of the unequal treatment that gay men and women have experienced over the years,” said ACLU of Washington legal director Sarah Dunne.
This Case Isn’t About Flowers, It’s About Religious Privilege
This is the first major challenge to Washington state’s marriage equality law. More than that, it will be a convergence point for the Religious Right because it deals directly with how far religious exemptions and, in that sense, privilege, should extend. Indeed, Stutzman’s lawyers have warned (pdf) ”a number of national non-profit organizations…are ready for a fight.”
Legal analysts are already predicting this could reach the federal courts, and perhaps even the United States Supreme Court, so expect to hear more about this in the coming months.
Image credit: Thinkstock.