Florist faces fine, damages for refusing to service gay couple's wedding

by Karen L. Willoughby, |
Benton County Superior Court Judge Alex Ekstrom ruled Barronelle Stutzman, a member of a Southern Baptist church and owner of Arlene's Flowers and Gifts in Richland, Washington, broke state laws by declining to service the same-sex wedding of Robert Ingersoll and Curt Feed. However, he deferred on ruling on fines and the .91 in gas money (driving to an alternate florist) the couple claimed as damages. | Screen Capture

RICHLAND, Wash. (Christian Examiner) – Relationships do not matter, a same-sex couple showed when they chose to sue for $7.91 because they had to find a different florist to decorate their wedding.

A judge ruled Wednesday that Arlene's Flowers of Richland, Washington, was bound by consumer protection and anti-discrimination laws, over any religious objections, to sell wedding flowers to a same-sex couple.

"For over 135 years, the Supreme Court has held that laws may prohibit religiously motivated action, as opposed to belief," wrote Benton County Superior Court Judge Alex Ekstrom in his decision. "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."

Arlene's Flowers owner Barronelle Stutzman, a member of a Southern Baptist church, had sold flowers for 10 years to Robert Ingersoll. "She knew he was gay and that the flowers were for his partner, Curt Freed," according to an article by the Associated Press.

But when they came to her to request her florist shop service their wedding, "she placed her hands on his and told him she couldn't 'because of my relationship with Jesus Christ,' she said in a deposition," noted the AP article.

Same-sex marriage was declared legal in Washington state in 2012, and the following spring Ingersoll went to Arlene's Flowers to order flowers for the wedding he and Freed had planned.

She was sued in 2013 both by the state's Attorney General Bob Ferguson and the Ingersoll/Freed couple.

Kristen Waggoner of the Alliance Defending Freedom legal firm based in Scottsdale, Arizona, which specializes in religious freedom issues, represented Stutzman.

Stutzman believed strongly that she needed—because of her religious convictions—to turn away the business offered by the Ingersoll/Freed wedding, Waggoner said.

"You put your home, your family business, and your life savings at risk by daring to defy a government mandate that forces you to promote views you believe are wrong," the defending attorney said.

It was not enough to change the judge's mind.

"Confirming the enactment of same-sex marriage, there would eventually be a direct and insoluble conflict between Stutzman's religiously motivated conduct and the laws of the state of Washington," Ekstrom said in his 60-page opinion. Stutzman's actions became illegal the day voters passed a referendum legalizing same-sex marriage, the judge added.

"We were hurt and saddened when we were denied service by Arlene's Flowers after doing business with them for so many years," the same-sex couple said in a statement to the Associated Press. "We respect everyone's beliefs, but businesses that are open to the public have an obligation to serve everyone."

The judge deferred until a later date ruling on the fines, which could bankrupt her, and the $7.91 in damages sought by the same-sex couple for the gas they spent looking for another florist.

Alliance Defending Freedom plans to appeal.