by Mike Andrew -
SGN Staff Writer
A Richland florist who refused to provide flowers for a Gay wedding now faces at least one, and possibly two, civil suits challenging her right to discriminate against same-sex couples.
In March, Barronelle Stutzman, the owner of Arlene's Flowers, turned down the request of longtime customer Robert Ingersoll that she provide flowers for his wedding to his boyfriend, Curt Freed. The wedding, Stutzman claimed, violated her religious beliefs and she did not want to cooperate with it.
On April 9, Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson filed a consumer protection suit against Stutzman, charging that she had violated state law.
STATE BARS DISCRIMINATION
'As Attorney General, it is my job to enforce the laws of the state of Washington,' Ferguson said in a statement posted on his official website.
'Under the [Washington state] Consumer Protection Act, it is unlawful to discriminate against customers on the basis of sexual orientation. If a business provides a product or service to opposite-sex couples for their weddings, then it must provide same-sex couples the same product or service.'
Ferguson is asking the court to bar Stutzman from future discrimination and pay $2,000 for any additional violations.
'She runs a business,' Ferguson said, 'and you can't discriminate when running your business, so it is appropriate for the attorney general to bring a consumer protection action.'
The next day, Ingersoll and Freed indicated they might also sue Stutzman, unless she agrees not to discriminate against Gay people in the future. The couple has retained attorneys and is also working with the ACLU on the case.
In a letter to Stutzman, the couple's attorneys, from the Seattle firm of Hillis Clark Martin & Peterson, reminded the florist that refusing goods and services to Gay customers also violates the state's Civil Rights Law.
'Your refusal to sell flowers to Mr. Ingersoll and Mr. Freed for their wedding has hurt them very deeply. It is a disturbing reminder of the history of discrimination and disparate treatment that they and other Gay men and women have experienced over the years,' the lawyers wrote to Stutzman. 'More to the point of this letter, your conduct was a violation of Washington law.'
The legislature prohibited discrimination based on sexual orientation in 2006, and the lawyers state that 'any person injured by an act in violation of the Washington Civil Rights Law is entitled to bring legal action.'
According to Ferguson, he sent a similar letter to Stutzman on March 28 'requesting she reconsider her position and sign an agreement indicating her intention to comply with Washington laws.'
But, Ferguson continued, 'Stutzman's attorneys responded [April 8] and said that Stutzman would challenge any state action to enforce the law.'
CITES FIRST AMENDMENT
Stutzman's lawyer, B. Craig Gourley, replied that same-sex marriage 'offends' her, and that she has a right to abstain from supporting it. Gourley also claimed that Stutzman's floral arrangements are constitutionally protected 'expression,' and therefore cannot be regulated by the state.
'Florists are universally engaged in the art of designing floral arrangements as an act of expression,' he wrote.
'Different floral arrangements are created for different events and sentiments, depending on a variety of factors. The florist's job is to create an arrangement that expresses the sentiment of the florist's clients. It is creative expression. If the law requires a florist create an expression of appreciation for Gay 'marriage,' or any other matter that offends the conscious of the florist, it is compelled speech in violation of the First Amendment. The state cannot require a florist to express appreciation for or acceptance of Gay 'marriage' any more than the state can require a musician to write a song about it, or an artist to paint a picture.'
So far, Gourley has not responded to the letter sent by the attorneys for Ingersoll and Freed.
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