The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

‘Relationship with Jesus’ doesn’t justify florist’s refusal to serve gay couple, judge rules

Rob Ingersoll, left, and Curt Freed in Kennewick, Wash., in 2013. (Julie Saraceno/Missy Moo Studio via AP)

A Washington state florist who refused to provide flower arrangements for a gay wedding “because of [her] relationship with Jesus” violated the state’s anti-discrimination and consumer protection laws, a judge ruled Wednesday.

“Religious motivation does not excuse compliance with the law,” Benton County Superior Court Judge Alexander C. Ekstrom said in his 60-page opinion. “In trade and commerce, and more particularly when seeking to prevent discrimination in public accommodations, 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.”

The couple, Robert Ingersoll and Curt Freed, asked Baronelle Stutzman to provide flowers for their wedding in March 2013, three months after Washington state legalized same-sex marriage. According to court documents, Stutzman had served Ingersoll at least 20 times before and was aware that he was gay. But her shop, Arlene’s Flowers, could not provide the flower arrangements for his wedding because doing so would have constituted a demonstration of approval for the wedding itself, she said.

“I just put my hands on his and told him because of my relationship with Jesus Christ I couldn’t do that, couldn’t do his wedding,” Stutzman said in a deposition.

It was the only wedding Stutzman had turned down in 37 years.

The incident is one of several such conflicts to draw national attention — around the same time, an Oregon bakery became the target of a discrimination lawsuit for declining to bake a wedding cake for a lesbian couple. (The state’s Bureau of Labor and Industry ruled in favor of the couple earlier this month.) Meanwhile, a baker in Denver is facing a complaint for refusing to write an anti-gay message on a Bible-shaped cake.

[Some conservatives are urging the right now to serve gays on religious grounds]

The conflict in Washington triggered two lawsuits: one from Ingersoll and Freed, who were backed by the American Civil Liberties Union, and a second from Washington State Attorney General Bob Ferguson, who claimed that Stutzman had violated Washington’s Consumer Protection Act.

“Washington state businesses cannot discriminate against customers on the basis of sexual orientation,” Ferguson said in a statement. “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.”

But Stutzman and her legal team said the florist hadn’t denied the couple flowers, just the arrangements, which Stutzman said were a form of free speech. They also argued that Stutzman’s faith should exempt her from the Washington Law Against Discrimination, which has barred discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation since 2006.

Ekstrom ruled in favor of the plaintiffs in both cases Wednesday, saying that while religious beliefs are protected, religiously-motivated actions are not, and that Arlene’s Flowers’ unwritten policy against serving gay weddings became illegal the day Washington voters legalized same-sex marriage in 2012.

“Stutzman cannot comply with both the law and her faith if she continues to provide flowers for weddings as part of her duly licensed business,” he wrote.

[America’s new culture war has emerged: Religion’s role in public life]

The penalty against Stutzman and her business will be settled via summary judgment, or without a full trial. Ingersoll and Freed, who have since married, had sued for $7.91 (the cost of driving to find a new florist). Stutzman also faces a fine of up to $2,000 under Washington’s anti-discrimination law, as well as the cost of legal fees.

Stutzman’s attorney said that she’ll be appealing the order.

“The ruling basically said that if you dare to not celebrate same-sex marriage because it violates your religious convictions, that the government has a right to bring about your personal and professional ruin,” Kristen Waggoner, an attorney with Alliance Defending Freedom, told The Los Angeles Times. “Her home, her business … her life savings and retirement, these are all in jeopardy … all because of her deeply held religious views.”

But the decision won praise from the ACLU of Washington, which represented Ingersoll and Freed.

“Religious beliefs do not give any of us a right to ignore the law or to harm others because of who they are. When gay people go to a business, they should be treated like anyone else and not be discriminated against,” Sarah Dunne, the organization’s legal director, said in a statement.

More from Morning Mix

Models with disabilities take on Fashion Week
In an underwater graveyard, scientists discover bones of giants from Madagascar’s past
Report: Rudy Giuliani tells private dinner ‘I do not believe that the president loves America’
2 dead, 7 possibly ill after ‘superbug’ bacteria hits UCLA hospital