What happens when a business owner's religious views collide with the rights of customers?
It's a question that's stirred debate in the Tri-Cities and beyond in the last several months as the Arlene's Flowers case has unfolded.
And it was the topic Wednesday of the Columbia Basin Badger Club's latest forum.
Pastor David Parker of Central United Protestant Church in Richland said in a world with "a plethora of places and outlets to receive goods and services," the religious rights should take precedence, rather than "coercing or forcing a person in a business environment into an action that they feel is in discord" with their personal religious views.
Beth Barrett Bloom, an employment and employee rights attorney based in Seattle, took the contrary view, saying patchwork equality isn't equality. "Fairness and equality are the preeminent values, they're the trumping values from which all other values should be judged and assessed," she said.
The pair spoke and answered questions for about an hour during the forum at the Richland Red Lion. The nonpartisan Badger Club grills officials, experts, newsmakers and politicians without taking sides. The forums are open to the public, though only members may ask questions.
The topic Wednesday dealt broadly with the issue of business owners' rights and responsibilities under the state's public accommodation law, but the discussion quickly narrowed in on the Arlene's Flowers case.
In March, Barronelle Stutzman, the owner of the Richland shop, refused to provide flowers for a same-sex wedding, citing her religious beliefs. Stutzman, who is being sued by the state Attorney General and the gay couple, has drawn both criticism and support.
Parker said the founding fathers attempted to "give themselves to the creation of a social order which fostered and protected" both freedom of speech and freedom of religion.
"I think the core cultural value of America still is very much in that place of protected speech and protected religious exercise," he said, adding that today it's possible society might be exchanging core values with contemporary values.
"The first amendment doesn't get checked at the door" for business owners, he said.
But Bloom said the country has anti-discrimination laws because "we decided, as a people, that there are certain fundamental human dignities that all are entitled to" and it's been determined some people and groups have been discriminated against systematically -- denied access to goods, services, schools and employment.
If proprietors insert themselves into the public sphere by opening a store, advertising and engaging in commerce for their own benefit, they may sometimes need to check their religious beliefs at the door under the law, she said.
Parker told the crowd at the forum that there's legal precedent in protecting businesses from being forced into "creative communications or events (or) publications that create a sense of participation in the message and event itself that is contrary to their religious convictions."
He noted that Stutzman had a positive relationship with the gay couple for years and "granted goods and services through the years for purposes that were not religious in nature and were not attached to a contra-religious message."
"The wedding is of course a religious event," Parker said. "It has certain meaning for Christians and she was withdrawing her services because she did not want to attach herself to that message of validation. I think it's a valid move; it's protected under law."
Bloom said it's helpful to think of the issue in historical context, noting there have been other instances of significant shifts in the law -- including women's suffrage and racial desegregation.
"Many times, in the early days of those social changes, there were dissenters who were good people but who asserted that whatever the law was that had changed made them uncomfortable and was inconsistent with their strongly held religious beliefs," Bloom said.
But in each of those cases over time, a underlying consensus has been reached that "when your religious practice -- no matter how good of a person you are, no matter how strongly (you hold) your convictions -- when your religious practice in conduct is harming or hurting another person for whom (it's been determined) discrimination is not to be tolerated, then you have to stop. You cannot violate the law."
She said she's confident it will be found that Stutzman violated the law.
-- Sara Schilling: 582-1529; firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @saraTCHerald