Richland florist sues state for violating her religious freedom

Tri-City HeraldMay 16, 2013 

— A Richland florist countersued the Washington attorney general Thursday after he filed a lawsuit against her for refusing to provide flower arrangements for a same-sex marriage.

Alliance Defending Freedom, a legal ministry that advocates for religious rights, filed the suit in Benton County Superior Court on behalf of Barronelle Stutzman, the owner of Arlene’s Flowers.

The lawsuit argues that Attorney General Bob Ferguson’s lawsuit attempts to force Stutzman to act contrary to her religious convictions, which it says is a violation of her constitutional freedoms.

“Everyone knows that plenty of florists are willing to assist in same-sex ceremonies, so the state has no reason to force Barronelle to violate her deeply held beliefs,” attorney Dale Schowengerdt with Alliance Defending Freedom said in a statement.

Ferguson’s lawsuit, filed on behalf of the state, argues that refusing to provide flower arrangements for a same-sex marriage is a violation of the Consumer Protection Act.

“It is the attorney general’s job to enforce consumer protection laws which prohibit discrimination in the marketplace,” Ferguson said in a statement Thursday. “If Ms. Stutzman sells wedding flowers to heterosexual couples, she must sell them to same-sex couples.”

The countersuit said that Stutzman had been creating floral arrangements for Robert Ingersoll for almost nine years, enjoying his requests for challenging and unique arrangements. She knew he was gay and that made no difference in how she treated him, the countersuit said.

She had a “warm and cordial” relationship with him and also employed openly gay workers, according to her countersuit.

In late February, when Stutzman was not at Arlene’s Flowers, Ingersoll stopped by to say he was engaged and wanted Arlene’s Flowers to create the floral arrangements for the wedding.

Stutzman “was distraught because she knew that this posed an insurmountable burden for her religious convictions,” according to her suit.

She voted against the same-sex marriage initiative recently passed by Washington voters, and prayed and talked with her husband about how to kindly explain to Ingersoll that she would not decorate for his wedding, according to court documents.

“Barronelle believes, as the Bible teaches, that marriage is defined by God as a union of man and woman,” according to court documents.

Creating floral arrangements for a same-sex wedding would send a message with her creativity in opposition to her religious convictions and would be perceived as a celebration of the marriage, she believed.

When Ingersoll returned to the shop March 1, Stutzman was emotional and touched his hand as she told him she could not provide floral arrangements, according to court documents. She gave him referrals to other florists.

Ingersoll was disappointed, but said he understood, and the two hugged before he left the store, according to the countersuit.

Ingersoll and his partner Curt Freed also have filed a lawsuit with the help of the American Civil Liberties Union against Arlene’s Flowers.

The shock and anger of family and friends when they learned the couple had been denied service for their marriage was “a learning moment,” Freed told the Herald in April.

Earlier, Ingersoll had described how the couple had stayed awake all night after they were refused service.

“It really hurt because it was somebody I knew,” Ingersoll said.

The initial emotional reaction by the couple passed, and they became more serious and focused on the fact that the incident was an act of discrimination, Freed said.

They were particularly concerned about the message the refusal sent to the gay youths they work with as volunteers, suggesting their young lives are not of value, Freed said.

“As an individual (Stutzman) is free to hold religious beliefs, but as a business owner, she may not violate our state’s laws against discrimination — no matter what she personally believes,” Ferguson said.

Alliance Defending Freedom argues that the Washington State Constitution protects “freedom of conscience in all matters of religious sentiment, belief and worship.”

Ferguson’s statements and actions in the case are a use of state power to coercively ban an important practice of religion by Stutzman and her business, the countersuit said.

The state is selectively enforcing the law in regard to religious practice and belief, which violates the U.S. Constitution, the countersuit said.

The First Amendment protects citizens from being compelled to associate with activities and messages with which they disagree, it said.

Arlene’s Flowers is requesting that the attorney general’s lawsuit be dismissed and that it be declared unlawful for Stutzman or others to be forced to provide services for same-sex weddings.

The countersuit also requests attorneys’ fees and litigation costs and any other relief the court deems just.

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