Losing in court wasn’t the worst thing for Elaine Huguenin. The worst came after she lost.
That’s when the emails and telephone calls started.
Ms. Huguenin was co-owner with her husband of a New Mexico wedding photography business. In 2006, she was contacted by a lesbian couple and asked if she could photograph their commitment ceremony.
Huguenin, a devout Christian, declined to take the job, telling the couple that she would not photograph events or subjects that convey a message with which she disagrees – such as a same-sex commitment ceremony.
She told them that, in accord with her religious beliefs, she only photographs traditional weddings between one man and one woman. But she also told the couple she would be happy to photograph them in a non-wedding context.
The couple sued for sexual-orientation discrimination, and the photographer lost at every stage of the case. But that didn’t stop people from emailing or calling her home with abusive comments and threats against her, her husband, and their young children.
“When we lost at the appeals court, there was this outpouring of people finding her phone number, calling up and saying either horrible things or threatening violence to her,” says Jordan Lorence, a lawyer with the conservative group Alliance Defending Freedom who handled the case through seven years of litigation.
“I was thinking, ‘She’s lost, she’s not a threat, and she’d never been a threat,’ ” Mr. Lorence says. “It was totally disproportionate to what was going on in this situation.”
Huguenin is not alone. Wedding cake designers in Colorado, Oregon, and Texas, and a florist in Washington State also received death threats and other menacing communications after turning down same-sex weddings because of religious conflicts.
Similar tactics emerged during the fight over Proposition 8, which banned same-sex marriage in California. Donors to that cause were targeted for harassment, including calls for boycotts and that they should lose their jobs.
These tactics are somewhat ironic, given that lesbians, gay men, bisexuals, and transgender individuals have long been targeted for hate speech and violence.
“LGBT people are far more likely than any other minority group in the United States to be victimized by violent hate crime,” according to the Southern Poverty Law Center.
It is not clear who is making the anonymous threats. But some analysts suggest that perhaps it stems from a crude concept of payback.
“I’ve heard so many people say, ‘This is what you deserve because of the way you’ve treated us,’ ” says Denny Burk, professor of biblical studies at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville.
Professor Burk calls the phenomenon “anonymous thuggery” and acknowledges that it can take a toll beyond bills and court battles on those seeking to defend traditional beliefs.
Professor Burk, also a Southern Baptist minister, says it is essential in the face of such harassment that people of faith turn to the scriptures to dissipate any sense of fear. It is essential, he says, that they turn to the example of Jesus.
“We need to love our neighbors. We need to love our enemies. We need to be patient and faithful,” Burk says. “And we need to pray for courage.”
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Lorence says the threats and harassment against the Huguenin family embodied a “kind of vigilante lynch mob” mentality.
“A guy threatened to burn down their house when all their family was in it and kill everybody in the house,” Lorence says. “This is after the Albuquerque newspaper reported on the front page that they had lost their case at the New Mexico Court of Appeals.”
That’s when Huguenin and her husband called the police. Nothing ever came of the report, but the experience rattled the young mother and photographer.
Huguenin declined an interview request for this story.
When she was in business, she maintained a website displaying her photographs. The website is no longer available on the Internet, and it does not appear that she is in the wedding photography business any longer.
Lorence says his client was hounded and intimidated into silence. “What has been cut off has been the outlet for Elaine Huguenin’s creative artistry as a photographer,” the lawyer said.
The most recent business to receive such threats is a Longview, Texas, bakery that turned down a request from a gay couple for a wedding cake in February.
After press reports about the refusal, Kern’s Bakery started receiving messages on its Facebook page that the shop owners characterize as “hateful and often incredibly vulgar.” The most troubling threats, according to a posting on their website, came by telephone and were directed against the owners’ lives, their home, and their business.
The resulting communications weren’t all negative. The bakery received a significant number of positive messages from customers thanking them for standing up for their religious beliefs. They even received an anonymous donation to buy a cake for the Longview Police Department. The bakery’s Facebook page shows a photo of two police officers receiving the cake in March. It featured an inscription in icing: “Blue Lives Matter.”
On its website, Kern’s Bakery identifies itself as a family-owned business that is operated “based on the Biblical values of our Christian faith.”
The owners of the bakery, Edie and David Delorme, have told reporters that they seek to run their business in a way that honors God and promotes godly values. The bakery declines to produce tobacco-themed cakes, cakes promoting alcohol, risqué cakes, and cakes that would celebrate a same-sex wedding.
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Shortly after Richland, Wash., florist Barronelle Stutzman declined to handle the flowers for a same-sex wedding ceremony, citing a religious conflict, she began receiving threatening communications.
“We have five lines in our store. All five lines for two weeks rang constantly,” she says.
“We had so many death threats and hate mail, computer threats, picketing threats, the list goes on and on,” Ms. Stutzman said in an interview, her eyes filling with tears.
“I was afraid for my crew. I had to change the way I went to work,” she says. “I had to get a security system.”
Like the photographer and the bakers, the comments directed at the florist generally ranged from suggestions that she was not a true Christian to accusations of bigotry to graphic vulgarity to specific and detailed threats of violence against her and her family.
“We never said anything negative to anybody who called. We thanked them for their opinion, and then we would hang up.”
She adds: “But the threats and the things people said they were going to do to me, and to my family – there is no tolerance there. I was called all kinds of names, most of them I had to look up to see what they were.”
According a report filed with the Richland Police Department, one man called more than 20 times. During one of the calls he threatened to assault Stutzman with a broken bottle.
Police reports show that the department responded by putting on extra patrols around Arlene’s Flower Shop. They also show that the police response time in Richland is extraordinarily fast.
“We take any threat seriously,” says Richland Police Captain Mike Cobb. He said such harassment is “personal and it is very frightening.”
No one has been identified.
But there is something else that bothers Stutzman. “They didn’t listen to what the story was. They didn’t want to hear what the story was,” she says.
Stutzman didn’t blindly reject a customer because of his sexual orientation, she says. She sold flowers to the customer for nine years and knew he was gay.
Her only objection was to personal involvement in the wedding ceremony, not to doing business with a gay man or a gay couple, she says. She declined the job because it would require her to become involved in a ceremony that violates her religious beliefs.
The controversy has converted the shop’s Facebook page into a forum for debate. Supporters and opponents use the review section to post arguments and counterarguments. Many just write in to vent.
“If, in conscience, you cannot oblige me [in the flower shop] then pay my taxes,” one writer says. “Better yet,” he says, move to Afghanistan “where your kind belong.”
Another comment posted: “Oh my heart hurts for you and your business. I can’t imagine the kind of backlash you’re receiving. Praying for you as well as your family…”
This isn’t the only forum for such debate. There is also an official Boycott Arlene’s Flowers page.
Although the star rating on her Facebook page has been suppressed by the number of non-customers writing in to rate her business as one star, the controversy does not appear to have affected Stutzman’s flower business – at least not yet.
Earlier this year, Arlene’s Flowers was voted Best Florist in 2016 by the Tri-City Herald’s People’s Choice Awards.
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Part 1: How the push for gay rights is reshaping religious liberty in America
Part 2: A florist caught between faith and financial ruin
Part 3: Behind legal fight over religious liberty, a question of conscience
Part 4: In Mississippi gay rights battle, both sides feel they are losing
Part 5: Is wedding photography art? A wrinkle in religious liberty debate.
Part 6: For those on front lines of religious liberty battle, a very human cost
Part 7: A push to help gay couples find wedding joy – without rejection