After five weeks of biting their tongues, a gay couple in Richland, Washington, is making a loaded offer to a florist who refused to sell them flowers based her biblical belief that "marriage is between a man and a woman."
Robert Ingersoll and Curt Freed's lawyers, working with the legal powerhouse at the ACLU of Washington, sent a letter today to Arlene's Flowers owner Baronelle Stutzman saying she 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.
That's some offer.
This would be the second lawsuit against Stutzman, who was sued by the state yesterday in Benton County Superior Court for discrimination under the consumer protection act. And given Stutzman's stubbornness thus far, these two cases may be on track to become the country's biggest gay-rights-versus-religious-liberty battle to date.
"Your refusal to sell flowers to Mr. Ingersoll and Mr. Freed for their wedding has hurt them very deeply. It is a disturbing reminder of the history of discrimination and disparate treatment that they and other gay men and women have experienced over the years," write the couple's lawyers at the firm Hillis, Clark, Martin, and Petersen, who then add more sharply, "More to the point of this letter, your conduct was a violation of Washington law."
The legislature prohibited discrimination based on sexual orientation in 2006, and the lawyers say that "any person injured by an act in violation of the Washington Civil Rights Law is entitled to bring legal action."
But by all apparent signs, Stutzman will refuse to budge.
Any lawsuit against Stutzman will be met with "an immediate challenge in federal court," according to a letter her lawyers sent to the state's attorney general Monday. Stutzman's lawyers—who indicate thay want to make this a major test of moral conscience legal defenses—contend that she is entitled to exercise her religious convictions and that arranging flowers is an act of personal expression; any demands or limitations on those expressive flower arrangements is a violation of right to free speech.
Ingersoll and Freed's counsel appears to address that argument today, writing in the letter—a powerful letter that I uploaded here and you should read—that "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 could stop this action if she wants, but it seems unlikely she'll comply by an April 17 deadline. She refused to take up Attorney General Bob Ferguson on a far less onerous option yesterday (just promise to never discriminate again). So at this rate, it appears Stutzman will be facing two lawsuits: One from the state as a consumer protection suit and this one by the aggrieved party, represented by lawyers working with the ACLU of Washington, which, it bears mentioning, is very good at winning.