The legal ramifications for active opponents of gay marriage were bound to arise at some point, so it shouldn’t be surprising to see the state attorney general’s office sue a Richland florist for refusing to sell flowers to a gay couple planning a wedding.
According to the state’s lawsuit, Robert Ingersoll, a gay man who had been a customer of the shop for nine years, asked about buying flowers for his wedding. Baronelle Stutzman, who is the owner of the shop, refused to supply the flowers, citing her “relationship with Jesus Christ.”
The couple posted information about this episode on Facebook, and when Attorney General Bob Ferguson learned of it, he decided he had to uphold state law.
The lawsuit, filed in Benton County Court, alleges violations of the Unfair Practices-Consumer Protection Act (RCW 19.86). Ferguson told The Spokesman-Review editorial board that his office chose that statute because human rights violations are typically handled by the state Human Rights Commission.
Whatever the statute, the fact that the couple were discriminated against based on sexual orientation is a critical factor. Ferguson put it succinctly in a press release: “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.”
The attorney general’s office sent a letter to Stutzman informing her of the violation. It followed up with a phone call, giving her an opportunity to comply with the law and head off legal action. Instead, she hired a lawyer.
So this will be hashed about in Benton County Superior Court, and possibly the appellate courts. That’s fine, because other business owners are probably tempted to take a similar stand, and they need to know how the law will be applied and the consequences of any violations. In this case, it’s potentially $2,000 per violation. But this consumer protection lawsuit does not preclude the couple from filing their own lawsuit. The Human Rights Commission could take action, too.
In a state that’s adopted gay marriage, along with laws barring discrimination based on sexual orientation, it ought to be clear: Attempts to refuse service based on religious or personal views are not acceptable.
Critics of this lawsuit will complain that Stutzman is being punished for her beliefs, but that isn’t the case. She can still profess and maintain her beliefs and not violate any law. It’s her decision to act on those beliefs by discriminating that is at issue. Her case is similar to those that arose after civil rights laws were adopted and business owners still refused to serve African-Americans.
The best course is to mind your own business when it comes to the race, religion, age and sexual orientation of your customers. If you just can’t do that, you’re in the wrong line of work.