A flower shop in Richland, Washington, is refusing to do business for a same-sex wedding, teeing up what could become the state's first big test of its anti-discrimination law since voters approved gay marriage last fall. Now you may be thinking: an anti-gay florist? But Arlene's Flowers owner Barronelle Stutzman confirmed in a phone interview this morning that she refused to serve Robert Ingersoll and Curt Freed's 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."
But Freed, 43, points out that the owner was never asked to "participate" in a wedding she disagrees with—just sell them flowers. "We had no intentions of sending her an invitation to our wedding. We don't want her to walk us down the aisle," he says. The couple has been buying flowers from the shop for the nine years they've been together, but when Ingresoll asked the owner last Friday to provide floral arrangements for their September 19 ceremony, Stutzman refused. Freed was seething the next morning and posted about his experience on Facebook, he says. "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 national debate about this, but it was wrong what happened to us."
And apparently against the law.
This appears to be a cut-and-dried case of illegal activity under Washington State's 2006 anti-discrimination 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 marriage campaign. "If a business is putting themselves out there as serving the public, then they cannot discriminate," Levinson explains. And the Washington State Attorney General said in a statement that "if they sell wedding flowers to any other opposite sex couple, they must not discriminate against a same-sex couple seeking to buy wedding flowers."
Asked if she thinks she broke the law, Stutzman replied, "Well I guess we will find that out, won't we." Still, it's unclear if Stutzman will even have to defend herself in court.
Freed and Ingersoll haven't yet filed an official complaint. The couple, who initially provided comments yesterday to the TriCity Herald, are weighing their legal options. "We are unsure of how we will respond at this point, but we know we have many options available to us," Freed tells me today. "We don't want to be rash, we don't want to be vindictive, we don't want to do something that isn't moving toward the greater good."
"We are quite shocked," he continues. "I would like to make sure that people can't do this and get away with this, because it hurts people. We think it's unfair to put anyone through this kind of experience."
The couple has reason to be wary of becoming poster children and risking the religious right's backlash if they litigate. As we saw during fights last fall in four states voting on gay-marriage proposals, campaigns funded by the National Organization for Marriage cited anti-discrimination cases to argue that business owners, parents with kids in schools, and others could be forced to violate their religious mores by recognizing same-sex marriage laws. It was a clever ploy to cast anti-gay conservatives as the victims of discrimination themselves. So as the country considers future gay-marriage laws, filing a lawsuit against Arlene's Flowers could arguably make this couple the whipping boys of the far right.
But Ingersoll and Freed don't necessarily need to file a lawsuit. The Washington State Human Rights Commission could independently seek a settlement or sue for them, even though it typically responds to complaints. "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, who adds that it is "a possibility."
If the couple chooses to file a lawsuit, the state is certainly 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 cannot treat gay people as second-class citizens with impunity. These are relatively new laws—both the anti-discrimination law and the marriage law—and the state should enforce it even if couples don't want to become mired in fighting a lawsuit. Granted, the state's action would also keep the spotlight on the couple, but they're already in it.
Arlene's Flower's owner Stutzman says she's received lots of calls and Facebook comments, about an even split of positive and negative reactions from customers who "just support our decision to stand up for our beliefs" and others who say they "choose to buy their flowers elsewhere."
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.
Levinson points out this florist is in the slim minority here. "The overwhelming number of business across the state have... 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.
While the legal aspects of the case are about civil rights, Stutzman acknowledges that she had no trouble selling floral arrangements to Ingersoll, 42, until he was getting married to a guy. "We've done business with him for years," the flower shop owner says, and "he is just an awesome guy."
But Freed says he regrets spending money there for years. Asked again if he's pondering legal action, he says, "Businesses should probably know the anti-discrimination laws better so they don't break them and put their business and livelihood at risk by doing these kind of things."