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Gay couple at center of discrimination suit

Sun., April 21, 2013

SEATTLE – In a part of the state where attitudes toward gay and lesbian people are seldom favorable, Robert Ingersoll and Curt Freed have lived open but quiet lives with a tight knot of friends they often entertain in their Kennewick home.

Occasional volunteers at a Tri-Cities youth center for gay and lesbian teens, the men are not politically active and did not take part in last year’s statewide campaign on same-sex marriage.

That might help explain why what happened at a Richland flower shop March 1 has so upended their ordinary lives.

Freed and Ingersoll are now at the center of legal actions against Arlene’s Flowers, where Ingersoll has been a customer for the nine years he’s lived in the Tri-Cities and Freed for much of his life.

In a telephone interview Thursday, Ingersoll said he was surprised by the state attorney general’s discrimination lawsuit against Arlene’s owner Barronelle Stutzman, who had told the couple that she wouldn’t provide a floral arrangement for their September wedding because of her relationship with Jesus Christ.

On the advice of her attorney, Stutzman, who’s been selling flowers in the Tri-Cities for 37 years, hasn’t spoken publicly since the lawsuit was filed. But right after the incident she told the Tri-City Herald that she believes she should be able to choose whether to participate in a wedding between two men.

On Thursday, the ACLU of Washington filed a private suit on behalf of the two men, seeking damages from the florist and asking that the shop stop its practice of denying service based on sexual orientation.

Ingersoll said the action isn’t so much about him and Freed but about ensuring the same thing doesn’t happen to anyone else, including the young people they’ve worked with at the Vista Youth Center.

“This saddens us,” said Ingersoll. “You’re put into a spot where you never thought you’d be.”

After the two met in 2004, they soon settled into an unassuming life in a county where nearly two-thirds of voters rejected same-sex marriage last fall.

“We live in a conservative part of the state,” Ingersoll said. “But it’s never been something that kept us back.”

Ingersoll said he’s not by nature a confrontational person and he respects other people’s points of view.

They weren’t asking the florist to show up at the venue or get involved in any way other than to provide flowers, Ingersoll said.

He had gotten to know the people at Arlene’s and liked them, which is why Stutzman’s rejection hurt him in a way that even now he struggles to express.

At home, Ingersoll said, Freed was even more shocked when he told him what happened and, later, when they told friends about it over dinner, “they were livid.”

“I couldn’t sleep that night,” he recalls.

The men wrote about the incident on their Facebook pages the following day, “so immediate friends would know where they were spending their money and that perhaps they may want to spend it somewhere else.” Ingersoll said.

While the men are likely to be witnesses in the state’s case against Arlene’s, they did not complain about the incident to either the attorney general or the Human Rights Commission, which enforces the state’s anti-discrimination laws.

Local news media picked up their story, which is how the attorney general’s office learned of the incident.

In an interview Thursday, Attorney General Bob Ferguson said he gave a lot of thought to whether to file a lawsuit, which appears to be the first case of discrimination of any kind the state’s attorney general’s office has brought on its own.

His office said it has since fielded many calls, most from people who disagree with him.

“I realize a lot of people around the state have strong views about these issues, around marriage equality, around whether sexual orientation should be part of our law against discrimination,” Ferguson said.

Ingersoll said the couple have since received several offers for wedding flowers and will decide in time.

They realize the sudden spotlight on their lives will likely continue, but, Ingersoll said, “we are far more prepared for what happens next than perhaps we might have been 10, 20 years ago.”

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