Family values organization interested in joining Arlene’s Flowers dispute

Herald Staff WriterApril 10, 2013 

Supporters and critics of a Richland florist’s decision to not provide flowers for a same-sex wedding are jumping into her legal fray with the Washington Attorney General’s Office. A conservative family values organization, the Family Policy Institute of Washington, is asking people if they are interested in supporting a challenge by Barronelle Stutzman, owner of Arlene’s Flowers in Richland, to a consumer protection lawsuit filed this week by the attorney general.

“We will be helping to assemble Washington citizens to support this small business and communicate to our elected officials that this harassment is not being done with the consent of the governed,” said executive director Joseph Blackholm in a release.

Meanwhile, the couple whom Stutzman refused to serve, Robert Ingersoll and Curt Freed, also are considering legal action against her with help from the American Civil Liberties Union.

An ACLU attorney has proposed a settlement requiring Stutzman to provide service to anyone regardless of sexual orientation, write Ingersoll and Freed a letter of apology and donate $5,000 to Vista Youth Center of Kennewick — which serves lesbian-gay-bisexual-transgender-questioning, or LGBTQ, youth.

“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,” said a letter from Michael Scott, a cooperating attorney with the ACLU. “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 unjust.”

JD Bristol, Stutzman’s Snohomish-based attorney, said he and his client agree businesses are prohibited from discriminating against people because of their faith, ethnicity and sexual orientation. He argued that isn’t the issue here, however.

“The objection isn’t because the client is gay, it’s because of the event,” Bristol told the Herald. “That’s based on a religious sentiment.”

Stutzman refused to serve Ingersoll, a customer of nine years, in early March when he came in to order flowers for his wedding with Freed. She told Ingersoll she couldn’t provide the flowers because of her religious beliefs.

The incident led Ingersoll and Freed to write Facebook posts about it, and that got the attention of the attorney general’s office, as sexual discrimination falls under the state’s consumer protection and anti-discrimination laws.

State justice officials filed the lawsuit in Benton County Superior Court on Tuesday, seeking a court order that Stutzman not discriminate against same-sex couples and that she pay $2,000 per violation. A court date for the case hasn’t yet been set.

Blackholm of the Family Policy Institute said the implications of same-sex marriage beyond the couples it would allow to marry were ignored last year when Washington voters approved a ballot measure allowing those unions. Voters in Benton and Franklin counties rejected the measure.

People who object to same-sex marriage will face pressure to conform or be punished, Blackholm said.

“A small business owner is looking at years of litigation and huge legal expenses because she won’t bow to the political elites,” Blackholm said.

Bristol said Arlene’s Flowers doesn’t discriminate against homosexuals, having served them as customers and employed them. The attorney general’s office is alleging Stutzman refused to provide public accommodation that would force her to violate her conscience and lend her artistic talents as a florist to an event she doesn’t support.

“It is, in my view, a horrible waste of taxpayer dollars,” Bristol said.

However, the ACLU letter to Stutzman said her refusal to serve the couple was not only a violation of law, but also personally hurtful to them after they’d spent years coming to her business because they admired her talents.

“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,” the ACLU letter said.

The letter closes with a note that the settlement offer from Ingersoll and Freed is only available until April 17. Bristol said neither he nor his client is considering a settlement with the ACLU.

-- Ty Beaver: 509-582-1402; tbeaver@tricityherald.com; Twitter: @_tybeaver

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