A Washington florist is being sued by both the American Civil Liberties Union and the state attorney general for refusing to provide service to a gay couple planning their wedding, a legal tangle that has pitted antidiscrimination policy against religious freedom.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Washington filed a lawsuit Thursday, claiming that Barronelle Stutzman, owner of Arlene's Flowers and Gifts in Richland, Wash., discriminated against Robert Ingersoll and Curt Freed, who are longtime patrons of the shop. Last week, state Attorney General Bob Ferguson filed a consumer protection lawsuit against Ms. Stutzman, the first discrimination case based on sexual orientation brought by the Attorney General's Office, reports the Seattle Times.
In court documents, Stutzman said she would not sell flowers for a same-sex wedding because of her religious beliefs, reports Reuters.
“The refusal to sell flowers to the couple is a disturbing reminder of the unequal treatment that gay men and women have experienced over the years,” said Sarah Dunne, ACLU of Washington legal director, in a statement. “When a business serves the general public, the business owner’s religious beliefs may not be used to justify discrimination.”
Washington law prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation, which applies to businesses selling goods and providing services, the ACLU statement said.
“Under the Consumer Protection Act, it is unlawful to discriminate against customers on the basis of sexual orientation,” Mr. Ferguson said in a statement on April 9. “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 sent a letter to Stutzman in March asking her to reconsider her decision, but her attorney said she would challenge the state action and ACLU lawsuit, Reuters reported.
Attorney Justin Bristol, who is representing Stutzman, told Reuters that his client expects a long legal fight, but she believes the cases violate her First Amendment rights.
"She is one of the few people left today willing to stand by her convictions rather than compromise her beliefs," Mr. Bristol said. "She's a very nice lady and doesn't have a discriminatory bone in her body, but she doesn't want to be forced to participate in an event that she doesn't believe in."
He told the Seattle Times, “I one hundred percent believe this is a freedom-of-expression and free-exercise-of-religion issue. What the government is saying here is that you don’t have the right to free religious exercise.”
The Seattle Times also reported that the case is reigniting the gay marriage debate in the state where 54 percent of residents voted to legalize gay marriage in November. Washington is one of nine states, along with the District of Columbia, that have legalized gay marriage.
In Washington, “there have been thousands of weddings ... and this is one of very few negative stories we’ve heard,” he said.
Mr. Ingersoll and Mr. Freed told the Associated Press that they plan to get married in September. They were customers of Stutzman's shop for years, but only when they told her of their wedding plans did she refuse to sell them flowers.
"The florist discriminated against us as a result of our sexual orientation. Because we're a gay couple, she chose not to serve us. We feel like that's something she should not be allowed to do," Freed said.
They said they, too, are prepared for a long legal battle. The ACLU lawsuit seeks damages for Ingersoll and Freed, as well as a court order barring Stutzman from discriminating against customers. The state seeks $2,000 in penalties from the business and a permanent injunction, which would require Stutzman to comply with state laws.