Guest Opinions

Arlene’s Flowers case no way to settle disputes

Tri-City Herald file

Though it dragged out in some parts of the nation, election season has finally wrapped up, and most of us are probably relieved. No more attack ads. No more candidate sign clutter. Winners are elated. Losers concede. Rinse, repeat in two years.

But the irritation of election season sure beats the alternative. In other places, people settle disputes by throwing opponents in jail and confiscating their property, not by casting ballots and watching tacky TV ads. Better to suffer through social media hot takes than have your house taken away for disagreeing with those in power. Our way to resolve disputes seems better.

And that’s why events surrounding 74-year-old grandmother and floral artist Barronelle Stutzman in Richland are so concerning. She is trying to live out her beliefs about marriage in her small business. Those beliefs are not unusual. Three years ago, the U.S. Supreme Court called them “decent and honorable” and noted that they are held “in good faith by reasonable and sincere people here and throughout the world.”

But Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson heard about this grandmother on social media and then — without receiving a complaint from anyone allegedly harmed by her — sued her for violating state law, a move by the attorney general that had never been done before.

What’s more, the state did not just sue her business; it sued her personally. So she faces the loss of her house, retirement, and life savings. The state even battled her all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which recently instructed the Washington State Supreme Court to reconsider her case. Alliance Defending Freedom attorneys representing her filed their opening brief with the state high court last month.

What atrocious act did this grandmother commit? She created beautiful floral arrangements for a same-sex couple for nearly 10 years, and then — just two months after Washington recognized same-sex marriage — she politely declined to celebrate that couple’s same-sex wedding, referring them to other florists instead.

Barronelle’s religious beliefs compel her to love, respect, and serve all people. She just cannot celebrate every event asked of her. So, while she happily serves and employs people from the LGBT community, she cannot celebrate wedding ceremonies contrary to her faith that defines marriage as a union between a man and woman.

That faith means Barronelle can’t do what Washington is demanding of her — to hand-craft floral arrangements celebrating same-sex unions, take those flowers to the event, and participate in that ceremony by, for example, standing for the couple’s processional, clapping in approval, and greeting guests.

Now you may disagree with Barronelle’s beliefs, and that’s fine. But it’s too simplistic to label her a discriminator and chalk up Washington’s lawsuit as her just desserts.

For one thing, discriminators don’t love, serve, and befriend their LGBT clients for years and years. Barronelle wrestled over how to tell her friend she couldn’t celebrate his same-sex wedding, she told him politely, she offered alternative florists, and she even hugged him as they parted ways. She did everything she could not to offend. She just couldn’t abandon her beliefs.

This dispute is about declining to create art that celebrates a sacred event — about a disagreement over a message — not discrimination against a class of persons. We wouldn’t force a Muslim freelance singer to sing at a Jewish religious ceremony. That’s not discrimination. It’s letting artists choose what they promote and participate in. Why would different rules apply here?

For another thing, just desserts don’t involve religious hostility. If Washington’s attorney general really cared about equal justice, why has he gone after Barronelle for living out her faith but allowed other businesses to discriminate against Christians?

In 2017, the owner of Bedlam Coffee in Seattle unleashed a profanity-laced tirade against a group of Christians because of their beliefs and kicked them out of his shop. That incident went viral, and people complained to the attorney general, but what did he do? A thorough investigation? A proactive lawsuit? No. He sent a standard form letter to Bedlam Coffee and quickly closed the file when the owner did not respond. Not even a slap on the wrist.

This discrepancy shows that Barronelle’s case really is about how we handle disagreement. The attorney general offers one way. He disagrees with Barronelle’s beliefs about marriage and is targeting her for it, singling her out and pressuring her to change her beliefs or abandon her wedding business.

But is this the best way? In our diverse society, we often disagree about important issues. Issues like marriage and healthcare, taxes and immigration. The sooner we can learn to resolve these disputes with charity and tolerance, and not government coercion, the better off we will be.

In Barronelle’s case, that means allowing her to choose the events she celebrates through her art and the ceremonies she participates in. Same-sex couples will still be free to get married and buy the floral arrangements they want. But we will be required to tolerate and respect those with whom we disagree. Frustrating for some? Perhaps. But the alternative is much worse.

Jonathan Scruggs is senior counsel with Alliance Defending Freedom, which represents Barronelle Stutzman and Arlene’s Flowers.