The owner of Arlene’s Flowers in Richland broke the law when she refused to provide services for a same-sex wedding, a Benton County Superior Court judge ruled Wednesday.
Judge Alex Ekstrom’s decision means the high-profile case won’t go to trial in March as scheduled. Ekstrom found that the essential facts aren’t in dispute and a trial isn’t needed.
An attorney for the flower shop owner, Barronelle Stutzman, 70, said the ruling will be appealed.
Ekstrom earlier ruled that Stutzman can be held personally liable in the case.
Never miss a local story.
“The message of these rulings is unmistakable: the government will bring about your personal and professional ruin if you don’t help celebrate same-sex marriage,” attorney Kristen Waggoner said.
Meanwhile, state Attorney General Bob Ferguson and lawyers for the couple praised Ekstrom’s decision.
The case has made headlines around the country, watched especially closely as other states follow Washington in legalizing same-sex marriage, and it’s sparked debate and emotion in the Tri-Cities.
A hearing in December drew so many supporters on both sides that the crowd overflowed into the lobby.
The couple, Robert Ingersoll and Curt Freed, became engaged shortly after Washington voters upheld same-sex marriage through Referendum 74.
On Feb. 28, 2013, a few months after the vote, Ingersoll went to Stutzman’s shop to ask about flowers for the ceremony.
Stutzman wasn’t there, and Ingersoll came back the next day. At that time, Stutzman — a Southern Baptist — told him she “couldn’t do his wedding” because of her relationship with Jesus Christ.
Ferguson’s office sued in April of that year, after first sending Stutzman a letter asking her to follow the law. Ingersoll and Freed also filed suit.
The state and the couple argued Stutzman clearly violated state anti-discrimination law and the Consumer Protection Act.
Stutzman’s attorneys said she declined her services not because of the couple’s sexual orientation, but because of her religious views on marriage. She has the right to free speech and exercise of religion, they said.
In his 60-page decision, Ekstrom sided with the state and the couple. “For over 135 years, the Supreme Court of the United States has held that laws may prohibit religiously motivated action, as opposed to belief. In trade and commerce, and more particularly when seeking to prevent discrimination in public accommodations, the Courts have confirmed the power of the Legislative Branch to prohibit conduct it deems discriminatory, even where the motivation for that conduct is grounded in religious belief,” he wrote.
Waggoner, senior counsel with the nonprofit Alliance Defending Freedom, said in a statement that Ingersoll and Freed “had no problem getting the flowers they wanted. They received several offers for free flowers, and the marketplace gives them plenty of options. Laws that are supposed to prohibit discrimination might sound good, but the government has begun to use these laws to hurt people — to force them to conform and to silence and punish them if they don’t violate their religious beliefs on marriage.”
Stutzman said in the same statement that, “I just want the freedom to live and work faithfully and according to what God says about marriage without fear of punishment. Others have the freedom to say or not say what they want to about marriage, and that’s all I’m asking for as well.”
Ferguson said, “I appreciate the judge’s decision and am very proud of my team’s hard work to stop this unlawful discrimination.”
The law is clear, he added. “If you choose to provide a service to couples of the opposite sex, you must provide the same service to same-sex couples. Washingtonians have enacted laws recognizing equality for same-sex couples, and I will continue to vigorously uphold these laws,” Ferguson said in a statement.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Washington, which represents Ingersoll and Freed, agreed Ekstrom made the right call.
“Religious freedom is a fundamental part of America. But religious beliefs do not give any of us a right to ignore the law or to harm others because of who they are. When gay people go to a business, they should be treated like anyone else and not be discriminated against,” said Sarah Dunne, legal director, in a statement.
Penalties of up to $2,000 per violation and legal fees are allowed under the law, The Associated Press reported.
Stutzman has counter-sued the state. That case is on hold in federal court.