RICHLAND, Wash. — A judge in Washington has ruled that the state may hold a florist personally liable for declining to provide flowers for a regular customer’s same-sex “wedding,” thus authorizing authorities to go after her personal assets should she lose the legal battle.
As previously reported, Baronelle Stutzman of Arlene’s Flowers in Richland was leveled with a lawsuit March 2012 by State Attorney General Bob Ferguson, who claimed that she violated the law by not fulfilling the order. Stutzman had been approached by one of her faithful customers, Robert Ingersoll, a homosexual, as he wanted her to supply the flowers for his upcoming ceremony with his partner, Curt. She states that she politely explained that she would not be able to help in regard to the event.
“I just took his hands and said, ‘I’m sorry. I cannot do your wedding because of my relationship with Jesus Christ,’” Stutzman told reporters.
After Ingersoll decided to post on Facebook about the matter, controversy arose on both sides of the issue—both for and against Stutzman. The florist said that she received a number of threatening and angry comments.
“It blew way out of proportion,” Stutzman explained. “I’ve had hate mail. I’ve had people that want to burn my building. I’ve had people that will never shop here again and [vow to] tell all their friends.”
Weeks later, Attorney General Bob Ferguson issued Stutzman a letter advising that she must accommodate homosexual ceremonies or be subject to a lawsuit and heavy fines. He included with his letter a form that offered Stutzman the opportunity to recant and agree to comply with the law. She refused, and was subsequently met with a discrimination suit.
But the Christian legal organization Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) contended that Ferguson’s actions were inappropriate since he never received a complaint, but rather filed on his own volition.
“This Court should reject the Attorney General’s illegitimate claim of authority to bring this action,” the motion states. “Accordingly, this Court should dismiss the Complaint filed by the State of Washington for lack of primary jurisdiction, failure to exhaust administrative remedies as required by law, and lack of standing.”
It also filed a motion asking that Ferguson and the ACLU—which filed a separate suit—be prohibited from attacking Stutzman on a personal level.
“Washington law does not allow someone to attack a business officer personally rather than just sue the business ‘absent such exceptional circumstances as when the officer knowingly engaged in fraud, misrepresentation, or theft,’” it explains.
But on Wednesday, Benton County Superior Court Judge Alex Eckstrom—while throwing out a charge that accused Stutzman of directing her business to violate the state’s anti-discrimination laws—ruled that the florist may be held personally responsible for the incident.
“[T]he clear language” of the Consumer Protection Act and state anti-discrimination law “supports both individual and corporate liability,” Eckstrom stated.
The Family Policy Network of Washington outlines that this means that “the government can go after both the business assets of Arlene’s Flowers and personal assets of Barronelle Stutzman to collect attorney’s fees should their lawsuits prevail.”
“The narrow question of personal liability in a specific lawsuit is not itself a conspiracy against conscience rights and religious freedom,” Director Joseph Backholm stated. “However, there is little doubt that the government’s ability to go after the personal assets of business owners who prefer not to be part of certain events will continue to chill the free exercise of religion that until recently was celebrated and protected in America.”
A trial is set for March 23.