Arlene's Flowers in Richland sued by gay couple

The couple refused service by a Richland florist for their same-sex wedding filed a discrimination lawsuit Thursday against Arlene’s Flowers.

The lawsuit was filed in Benton County Superior Court with the help of the American Civil Liberties Union. A consumer protection lawsuit already has been filed by Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson.

Robert Ingersoll and Curt Freed say in the suit that shop owner Barronelle Stutzman refused to sell them flowers for their wedding because they are gay. That violates the state law that prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation, according to the lawsuit.

Stutzman’s attorney, JD Bristol of Snohomish, told the Herald that Stutzman’s issue was not in selling them flowers, but in using her time and artistic talent to support an event — a marriage between two men — that she believes is wrong.

Freed said the issue ultimately comes down to discrimination against them because of their sexual orientation.

“We felt it was wrong and shouldn’t be allowed to happen,” he told the Herald.

Freed, the vice president of instruction at Columbia Basin College, has been buying flowers from Arlene’s Flowers for 25 years.

He met Ingersoll, now the operations manager at Goodwill Industries in Richland, in 2004.

They went hiking together in the Yakima area and have been a couple since.

They estimate they’ve spent thousands of dollars at Arlene’s Flowers. They often bought bouquets for their birthdays, anniversaries and Valentine’s Days and also for family and friends and a recent housewarming party.

After Freed proposed to Ingersoll in December, they planned also to buy the flowers for their September wedding there.

Stutzman knew that Ingersoll was gay and in a long-term, committed relationship with Freed when Ingersoll came into her shop to talk about wedding flowers March 1, according to the lawsuit.

Stutzman told Ingersoll she could not do the wedding because of her Christian beliefs, she told the Herald in March.

Friends and family were shocked and immediately angry when the couple told them what incident, Freed said.

“It was a learning moment for us,” he said.

Ingersoll in March described to the Herald how they had stayed awake all night after they were refused service.

“It really hurt because it was somebody I knew,” Ingersoll said. “It was eating at our souls. There was never a question she’d be the one to do our flowers.”

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.

“It was wrong,” he said.

At the time they started talking to the ACLU, they didn’t know that the state attorney general would file a lawsuit, said Sarah Dunne, the legal director for ACLU Washington.

Instead, they wondered who would take action if they did not, Freed said.

Weighing heavily on their minds was the volunteer work they do with gay youth.

“We know how fragile their lives are,” and this was another example of people suggesting their lives are not of value, Freed said.

The couple thought they would be spending the spring and summer months planning the happiest day of their lives, not fighting a lawsuit, he said.

It would have been meaningful to have flowers from the florist shop that had played a role in many important days in their lives, he said. But since news spread that Arlene’s Flowers refused them service, they’ve had offers for flowers from all over the nation.

They haven’t arranged for flowers yet, but look forward to working with someone who wants to provide them for their wedding, he said.

Stutzman would have been willing to sell them flowers for the wedding, but not to design and create the floral arrangements and set them up at the wedding, which would have promoted or made her a participant in an event that offends her conscience, Bristol said.

Bristol and Stutzman agree that businesses are prohibited from discriminating against people because of their faith, ethnicity and sexual orientation, Bristol said.

“But it sounds like the state is forcing her to express assent to gay marriage,” he said.

The issue is how the law is being applied, which raises constitutional issues of freedom of religion, freedom of association and freedom of speech, in the sense that her art is akin to expression, he said.

“Barronelle Stutzman regrets the fact that Mr. Ingersoll and Mr. Freed are offended,” he said. “But she can’t compromise deeply held religious beliefs because they may be offended.”

The lawsuit asks that Arlene’s Flowers be directed to stop discriminatory practices. It also asks for damages and attorney’s fees.

The Family Policy Institute of Washington is planning a rally at the attorney generals's office in Olympia to bring him flowers from Arlene's Flowers. For more information call 425-608-0242.