When an Eastern Washington florist refused to provide flower arrangements for a gay couple's wedding recently, she wasn't just turning away two longtime customers. She was also teeing up what could become the first big test of Washington State's antidiscrimination law since voters approved gay marriage last fall.
Now, I hear what you're thinking: an antigay florist?
But Barronelle Stutzman, who owns Arlene's Flowers in Richland, confirmed in a phone interview last week that she refused to do business with Robert Ingersoll and Curt Freed for their wedding "because of my relationship with Jesus."
"I believe that marriage is between a man and a woman," Stutzman explained. "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, 43, pointed out that they never asked her to "participate" in their wedding—just to sell them flowers. "We had no intention of sending her an invitation to our wedding. We don't want her to walk us down the aisle," he said. The couple has been buying flowers from the shop for the full nine years of their relationship, but when Ingersoll asked the owner on March 1 to provide floral arrangements for their September 19 marriage ceremony, Stutzman refused. Then, weirdly, she gave Ingersoll a hug. Freed seethed and posted about the experience on Facebook. "After I posted it, I started crying. I said to Rob that I had to do this. We are not wanting to cause some fight or create a national debate about this, but it was wrong what happened to us."
And, apparently, against the law.
This seems to be a cut-and-dried case of illegal activity under Washington State's 2006 antidiscrimination law, which bans discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity, says Anne Levinson, a former Seattle Municipal Court judge and a leader of the successful marriage campaign. "If a business is putting themselves out there as serving the public, then they cannot discriminate," Levinson explains.
The Washington State Attorney General's Office adds in a statement that if florists "sell wedding flowers to any other opposite-sex couple, they must not discriminate against a same-sex couple seeking to buy wedding flowers."
But what about Stutzman—does she think she broke the law? "Well, I guess we will find that out, won't we," she told me.
Still, it's unclear if she will have to defend herself in court. Freed and Ingersoll haven't yet filed an official complaint or a lawsuit. "We are unsure of how we will respond at this point, but we know we have many [legal] options available to us," Freed explained. "We don't want to be rash, we don't want to be vindictive, and we don't want to do something that isn't moving toward the greater good."
But plenty of people want the couple to file suit. "I hope you are sued into bankruptcy for discrimination," wrote Steve Odysseus Meyers on the Facebook page for Arlene's Flowers.
Throughout the tumult, Stutzman has been rather sanguine, explaining that she had no trouble selling floral arrangements to Ingersoll, 42, until he was getting married to a man. "We've done business with him for years... he is just an awesome guy," she said. (Both men ordered Valentine's Day bouquets from her shop over the years, apparently delivered in the same van.) On her Facebook page, Stutzman said that she's hired all sorts of people and "had the privilege of working with some very talented people that happen to be gay." But it was an employee who has retaliated most bluntly: Eryn Hugo quit last week. "Some things are more important than money, and I felt making a stand by quitting—just not doing something completely against my beliefs—was very important to me," Hugo told the Tri-City Herald.
Other customers are remaining loyal and defending Stutzman, again trumpeting religious convictions. Jay Randolph proclaimed on the shop's Facebook page: "Homosexual [sic] is a learned behavior, or a decision. Many men would like to have sex outside of marriage with God, and that is the same sin as two guys having sex."
It's scores of people like this—people who think Freed and Ingersoll are sinners—who may give the couple reason to be wary of filing a lawsuit, because it risks provoking a backlash from the religious right.
Take the anti-gay-marriage campaigns in four states voting on gay-marriage proposals last November. Advertisements funded in part by the National Organization for Marriage cited antidiscrimination cases brought in states that have legalized gay marriage to argue that business owners, parents with kids in schools, and others will be forced to violate their religious mores by recognizing same-sex-marriage laws. It was a clever ploy to cast antigay conservatives as the victims of discrimination themselves. (Representative Matt Shea made this argument when gay marriage was debated in the legislature, saying, "I find it very ironic that we have a bill that claims to be about equality but would actually institutionalize discrimination against Christians... If you are a florist, this bill has no protections for you.") As the country considers future gay-marriage laws, filing a lawsuit against Arlene's Flowers could arguably make Freed and Ingersoll the new whipping boys of Christian conservatives.
But Freed and Ingersoll don't necessarily need to file a lawsuit. The Washington State Human Rights Commission could independently seek a settlement or sue on their behalf. "We don't do a whole lot of commission-initiated complaints, but it is something the commission has the power to do," explains commission spokeswoman Laura Lindstrand.
If the couple does choose to file a lawsuit, which would likely establish clear case law, the state is brimming with legal advocates loaded for bear to make their case. But if this couple doesn't elect to pursue this case, they shouldn't have to. The state should. The Human Rights Commission has an obligation to guarantee that businesses don't act with impunity to treat gay people as second-class citizens. These are relatively new laws—both the antidiscrimination law and the marriage law—and the state should enforce them, even if couples don't want to personally file lawsuits and become activists for civil rights.
Speaking of civil rights, I asked Stutzman how she legally justified her actions as different from, say, a lunch counter denying service to African Americans. "We aren't even going to get into that," she said. Since her objection is religious, I asked if biblical denouncements of other activities also influence which weddings she would work for. Would she provide flowers to a wedding serving shellfish, which the Book of Leviticus considers an abomination? "I think that is a ridiculous question," she said.
To put this in perspective, defiant antigay business owners are in the slim minority here. "The overwhelming number of businesses across the state have... welcomed the increase in business that has come to them from the [marriage equality] law," says Levinson, confirming the enthusiasm I found for gay marriage at a recent wedding expo. Rare as it may be, Freed said, "I would like to make sure that people can't do this and get away with it, because it hurts people. We think it's unfair to put anyone through this kind of experience."
In addition, Freed said he regrets spending money there for years. Asked again if he's pondering legal action, he said, "Businesses should probably know the antidiscrimination laws better so they don't break them and put their business and livelihood at risk by doing these kinds of things."