KANSAS CITY, Kan. — It would be hard to find anyone less offensive than 69-year-old florist Barronelle Stutzman. Nevertheless, she feels the American Civil Liberties Union and the state of Washington are out to destroy her.
Stutzman had operated her Richmond, Wash., flower shop for decades without any sort of controversy, supplying flowers for all sorts of occasions to generations of customers.
But her world was turned upside down in early 2013 when Robert Ingersoll, a customer of nine years, walked into her store and made this request: Would she provide floral arrangements for his wedding to his partner, Curt Freed?
Stutzman had known that Ingersoll was same-sex oriented for a long time; it had never been an issue. She had other homosexual customers and some homosexual employees.
But this request was different. It would require that she participate in a same-sex wedding — something that would, according to her conscience, go against her Christian faith.
Marriage, according to her Southern Baptist faith, was between one man and one woman only.
Reluctantly, she told Ingersoll she couldn’t, and why. She gave Ingersoll a hug and referrals to three other florists, and he left. She thought that would be the end of it.
Ingersoll and his partner, however, expressed their offense on a Facebook posting, and that led to lawsuits filed against Stutzman by Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson and the ACLU. Ingersoll and his partner joined the lawsuits, which have been consolidated.
Since same-sex marriage is legal in Washington state, Ferguson charged Stutzman with violating the state’s consumer protection act, which prohibits refusal to sell goods and services on the basis of sexual orientation.
“[Stutzman faces] a few thousand dollars in fines,” said Dale Schowengerdt, senior attorney with the Alliance Defending Freedom, which is representing Stutzman.
“[But] the big penalty, if she loses,” he added, “is she has to pay the other side’s attorney fees — which in this case, after the appeals, could be as much as a million dollars.”
But the cost isn’t only in dollars and cents. A loss would also mean a loss in freedom if business owners are compelled to participate in same-sex weddings against their faith and conscience.
For Stutzman, the cost of conscience and her citizenship is being paid at a very high price. She has also received a great deal of ugly hate mail and threats.
“She has both state and federal defenses,” said Schowengerdt. “The state constitution protects the right of conscience — it’s that explicit, [saying] the right of conscience is absolute. That’s a right that has been long protected under Washington law.”
“We think it trumps the [consumer protection law],” he continued. “A state statute can’t overcome a constitutional right. So that’s one basis.
“The other basis is that federal free speech and free exercise [of religion] protect her expression . . . [and they] are protected under the federal Constitution.”
By no means is the experience of Stutzman unique or isolated, said Schowengerdt. Similar cases against bakers, photographers, florists, reception facilities and others have been occurring all over the nation. It’s part of a coordinated campaign to force people to be silent on the issue of same-sex marriage, or to capitulate and affirm it as good.
Schowengerdt believes the defense has a strong case. Currently, the lawsuits are before the Benton County Superior Court and briefs will be filed during the summer. A hearing has been scheduled for early August.