Richland flower shop lawsuit delayed

Geoff Folsom, Tri-City HeraldMarch 5, 2014 

The state attorney general's lawsuit against Richland flower shop owner Barronelle Stutzman, who refused to provide services at a gay couple's wedding, has been delayed.

A hearing in the case had been scheduled last month in Benton County Superior Court, but was pushed back until October, Attorney General Bob Ferguson said.

"Sometimes courts have other things going on, we may never know what the reason is, that's just what the court decides," Ferguson said. "Not our preference obviously, but we defer to the court."

Ferguson's office sued Stutzman and Arlene's Flowers last year after she declined to create flower arrangements for a same-sex wedding in March 2013, citing her religious views.

The couple, Robert Ingersoll and Curt Freed, also filed a separate lawsuit.

Ferguson admits to following "with interest" a recent bill in Arizona designed to give added protection from lawsuits to people who assert their religious beliefs in refusing service to gays. Opponents called it an open attack on gays that invited discrimination.

The bill, which attracted national attention, was eventually vetoed by Gov. Jan Brewer.

"It doesn't change what we are doing or our case in any way," Ferguson said. "I do think what's occurred in Arizona does continue to raise the profile of situations like Arlene's Flowers and all the implications."

Similar religious-protection legislation has been introduced in Ohio, Mississippi, Idaho, South Dakota, Tennessee and Oklahoma, but Arizona's plan is the only one that has been passed by a state legislature.

Washington Sen. Sharon Brown, R-Kennewick, supported a bill in 2013 that sought to update the state's anti-discrimination and human-rights laws to protect people or religious organizations from "legal persecution" if they deny services to groups that are contrary to their religious views. The bill, introduced in the wake of the Arlene's Flowers controversy, has gone nowhere.

Arlene's Flowers was not the first case in which a same-sex couple sued because a business did not provide services. Ferguson said the New Mexico Supreme Court recently ruled in favor of a gay couple who was refused service by a photographer at a civil commitment ceremony. In Hawaii, the owner of a bed and breakfast refused to allow a gay couple to have a room, which a trial court ruled against.

"These cases are making their way through the courts in different states and Arlene's Flowers will be one more example," Ferguson said. "I'm not aware of any case that has upheld the religious liberty interest over the discrimination claims of the individuals."

-- The Associated Press contributed to this story.

-- Geoff Folsom: 509-582-1543; gfolsom@tricityherald.com; Twitter: @GeoffFolsom

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