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‘No Flowers For Gay Weddings’ Florist Getting Sued by Washington Attorney General

‘No Flowers For Gay Weddings’ Florist Getting Sued by Washington Attorney General

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.

 

Related Reading:

Washington Gov to Introduce Gay Marriage Bill

BREAKING: Washington State Legalizes Same-Sex Marriage

$88 Million Boost for WA Economy if Gay Marriage Recognized

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Image credit: Thinkstock.

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290 comments

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4:56AM PDT on Apr 22, 2014

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2:29AM PDT on Mar 29, 2014

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6:09PM PDT on Apr 29, 2013

@Sarah, if you would perhaps check out some of the other postings on this thread you’ll learn the old signs which hung in a great many small businesses in mid-century America saying “We Reserve the Right to Refuse Service to Anyone” became useless when LBJ signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The florist certainly has the right to whatever religious beliefs she might hold. Businesses however operate within a set of laws. Generally if a business is open to the public they must serve the public. She can be as prejudiced as she likes on Sunday but when she opens the flower shop she may no longer act on her prejudices.

5:59AM PDT on Apr 29, 2013

Where are this florist's rights? Shouldn't business owners have the right to refuse service?

3:21AM PDT on Apr 26, 2013

Before I even read the article, I can tell the florist is not Chinese.

2:17AM PDT on Apr 23, 2013

Quanta, let me try again. I am a bit embarrassed here because I did something rather stupid and I should know better. I behaved like an American expecting everyone to know US terms & concepts. I apologize. A Test Case typically is a challenge in the courts of new and controversial laws in the hope of overturning the law or limiting the scope of the law. In this case the State of Washington has added Sexual Orientation to the list of what is termed the “Protected Class.” You have the concept correct, The Civil Rights Act of 1964 established the people for whom discrimination is considered unlawful. Prior to that here in the US people of color would not be served in many places & even places such as a waiting room at a train or bus station would be separate, one room for whites & another for blacks. In places where it was impractical for separate rooms there might be separate entrances and separate drinking fountains very often only the white fountain would dispense chilled water. I suspect when the law was changed people in the religious community began looking for a case such as this to just see if a court would carve out an exception on religious grounds. It could just as easily been the Gay couple who feeling rather oppressed sought legal assistance knowing the law stated the florist had plainly discriminated against them. The case may well make its way through several appeals and may end in the Supreme Court.

11:27PM PDT on Apr 22, 2013

@ John H. I'm not American, so i don't know what you mean by a "planned test case" and I'm not familiar with most laws. I do know it's illegal to refuse service based on colour, gender etc in South Africa and it rarely if ever happens but I'm not sure what the legal ramifications are, whether they'll actually prosecute.

I do know that if I'm in a store and I get a funky feeling from the owner (even if they don't refuse service), I leave and take my money with me. Now that is an effective way to change someone's mind.

6:34PM PDT on Apr 22, 2013

Good!

3:22PM PDT on Apr 22, 2013

I am torn on this... I find this to be one of those thin line of where is the stop to religious beliefs? I mean I am not christian but think this woman has the right to her religious beliefs.... just like I don't want anyone to tell me what I should believe or not believe. My gay friends are just as divided on this story. Some believe that she didn't take money that they bought form her before and she didn't take any money no harm..find another florist...... Where some are screaming she would be in business..,.. It like telling the Christian Right that they have to don't ask don't tell.. how is that right? Glad I don't have to make any decisions on this case...

11:34AM PDT on Apr 22, 2013

Yell-o-gram-best description ever! Sorry, but just because the florist doesn't believe in same sex marriage-it doesn't give her the right to refuse service based on her own religious beliefs-especially since she didn't mind selling them flowers before and in her religion "shacking up" is a no no as well as is sex before marriage. I guess that means she won't be selling flowers to very many people since so many choose to just live together rather than marry and that is a sin in her book as well. Got to love pick and choose religious folk or not. May the gentlemen have a long happy marriage and find a decent florist to do business with. May they also win their court case.

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