OLYMPIA, Wash. — Attorneys general from 13 states joined in an amicus brief this week in support of a Washington florist who was found guilty last year of discrimination for providing a referral for a regular customer’s request for the creation of floral arrangements for his same-sex ceremony rather than fulfilling the order herself.
Lead by Arkansas Attorney General Leslie Rutledge, Attorneys General Luther Strange of Alabama, Ken Paxton of Texas, Patrick Morrisey of West Virginia, Mark Brnovich of Arizona, Doug Peterson of Nebraska and Jeff Landry of Louisiana were among those who joined in the briefing to the Washington State Supreme Court.
Govs. Sam Brownback of Kansas and Matt Bevin of Kentucky also added their names to the filing.
“[O]ur country’s history has been one of increasing protections for religious liberty, which include the practice of granting reasonable exemptions from laws that would otherwise force religious adherents to violate the tenets of their religion and thus act in a way they believe contravenes God’s law,” it reads, providing an account of religious freedom in early America and the conflicts that necessitated the protections.
“The right to free exercise of religion—as recognized in both the First Amendment and in Article 1, Section 11 of Washington’s constitution—is not restricted to one’s home or place of worship,” the brief states. “Yet Respondents claim that religious persons forfeit their right to live out their beliefs when they open a business.”
“Religious persons who own and operate businesses retain their free exercise rights,” it continues. “Respondents’ attempt to create a religion-free zone belies their claims of inclusivity and tolerance and is out of step with our free-exercise history. Their attempt to drive a wedge between one’s public and private lives would have shocked those who hammered out the religious-liberty principles [at the nation’s founding].”
As previously reported, Baronelle Stutzman of Arlene’s Flowers in Richland was leveled with a lawsuit March 2012 by Washington State Attorney General Bob Ferguson, who claimed that she violated the law by not fulfilling an order for a same-sex event.
Stutzman had been approached by one of her faithful customers, Robert Ingersoll, a homosexual, as he wanted her to supply the floral arrangements 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, but referred him to three other florists that may help.
“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.
But 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. 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.
In January 2015, 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.
A month later, Eckstrom granted summary judgment to Stutzman’s opponents, agreeing that she had committed an act of discrimination. The court also ordered Stutzman to provide full service to same-sex ceremonies, which includes not only accepting the order, but also delivering to the homosexual celebration, and assisting with the specific arrangements and decoration on-site.
She appealed to the Washington Supreme Court, which agreed to take her case in March.
“Barronelle and many others like her around the country have been willing to serve any and all customers, but they are understandably not willing to promote any and all messages,” ADF attorney Kristen Waggoner, who is representing Stutzman, said in a statement on Friday.
“The briefs that have been filed in support of Barronelle encourage the court to affirm the broad protections that both the U.S. Constitution and the Washington Constitution afford to freedom of speech and conscience,” she explained. “These freedoms protect Barronelle in the same way that they protect an atheist painter’s right to decline to paint a mural for a church, or a pro-same-sex-marriage print shop owner’s right to decline to print materials for a rally promoting marriage as the union of one man and one woman.”
Last November, Stutzman outlined in a Seattle Times article that she had been serving Ingersoll for some time, and it was not the person but the event that posed a problem.
“This case is not about refusing service on the basis of sexual orientation or dislike for another person who is preciously created in God’s image. I sold flowers to Rob for years. I helped him find someone else to design his wedding arrangements. I count him as a friend,” Stutzman she wrote.
“If all he’d asked for were prearranged flowers, I’d gladly have provided them. If the celebration were for his partner’s birthday, I’d have been delighted to pour my best into the challenge. But as a Christian, weddings have a particular significance,” she said. “Surely without intending to do so, Rob was asking me to choose between my affection for him and my commitment to Christ. As deeply fond as I am of Rob, my relationship with Jesus is everything to me. Without Christ, I can do nothing.”
Others that have joined friend-of-the-court briefs supporting Stutzman include The Frederick Douglass Foundation, the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, the Coalition of African American Pastors USA, the Center for Constitutional Jurisprudence, and the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention.