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Originally published April 17, 2013 at 8:26 PM | Page modified April 18, 2013 at 10:36 AM

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State’s case against florist fires up gay-marriage critics

The Richland businesswoman who declined to sell flowers to a gay couple for their wedding has given new life to a movement that was reeling from last year’s election.

Seattle Times staff reporter

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The state attorney general’s surprising lawsuit against a small florist in Eastern Washington has energized gay-marriage opponents who all but disappeared after failing to defeat same-sex marriage in Washington last fall.

They are rallying around Barronelle Stutzman, owner of Arlene’s Flowers of Richland, who cited her relationship with Jesus Christ in declining last month to provide floral arrangements for the September wedding of two longtime gay customers.

Local gay-rights leaders, meanwhile, have been low key in their reaction to the case — even as it has grabbed attention nationally.

There’s concern that as a handful of states seek to legalize gay marriage, a case like this could well provoke resentment among the so-called “movable middle” as well as live-and-let-live types who don’t like being told how to run their businesses.

Much like the Wildflower Inn in Vermont that refused in 2005 to accommodate a lesbian wedding and the New Mexico photo studio that declined in 2006 to shoot a commitment ceremony, they know the State of Washington v. Arlene’s Flowers will undoubtedly become a cause celebre for opponents seeking to highlight what they refer to as the negative consequences of legalizing gay marriage.

Approved by 54 percent of voters last fall, the state’s marriage law exempts religious leaders and organizations opposed to same-sex marriage from having to perform such weddings.

But those exemptions don’t extend to private businesses whose owners might have a religious objection to such unions, but must still comply with state laws against discrimination, which include sexual orientation as a protected category.

Customers of the Richland florist for nine years, the two men estimate they have spent thousands of dollars on flowers for special occasions — for Valentine’s Day, birthdays, anniversaries.

Josh Friedes, a spokesman for Equal Rights Washington, a gay-rights advocacy group, pointed out that while same-sex unions have been legal elsewhere in this country for nearly a decade, conflicts like this one have been few.

Here in Washington, he said, “there have been thousands of weddings ... and this is one of very few negative stories we’ve heard.”

In the end, he said, “The issue is not about marriage, but about whether gays and lesbians can go into a place of business and expect to be served just like everyone else.”

Joseph Backholm, executive director of the Family Policy Institute of Washington, who helped lead the campaign against same-sex marriage last year, is representing the florist in the court of public opinion.

His organization has established a fund for her defense and is exploring the idea of legislation “to clarify what the state’s nondiscrimination law can and cannot do.”

This is not about a business declining to serve gay people, but about a business owner who, because of her religious convictions, “didn’t want to be involved in a same-sex marriage,” Backholm said.

“People don’t want to have to pass some philosophical litmus test to participate in this society.”

Law to be tested

In an unusual move last week, state Attorney General Bob Ferguson sued the florist in Benton County Superior Court, saying her refusal to serve customers Robert Ingersoll and Curt Freed violates the state’s anti-discrimination law.

Such a violation, according to the lawsuit, triggers an automatic violation of the state’s Consumer Protection Act, which the Attorney General’s Office enforces and upon which this suit is based.

At the same time, allegations of discrimination are typically filed with the state’s Human Rights Commission, which enforces the state’s anti-discrimination law.

JD Bristol, attorney for Arlene’s, argues that Ferguson has no statutory authority to bring the suit, in part because this is not a clear case of discrimination. The Attorney General’s Office disagrees and ultimately a judge will resolve that question before the merits of this case can be heard.

A court date has not yet been set.

In comment threads and on Facebook pages, supporters are lining up on both sides of the dispute.

Last week, the ACLU of Washington said in a letter to the florist that it planned to sue her civilly on behalf of Ingersoll and Freed unless she publicly apologizes, donates $5,000 to a local LGBT youth center and stops refusing service to people because of their sexual orientation.

Bristol said his client has no plans to respond to the ACLU threat and, after consulting with several national organizations, is ready to fight the state on this issue.

On Thursday, the ACLU filed the suit, seeking damages and a court order barring the florist from discriminating on the basis of sexual orientation.

For now, lawyers on both sides are not allowing their clients to speak publicly about the incident.

Relationship marred

Ingersoll and Freed have been together since they met nearly nine years ago. They live a quiet life in a county that last fall voted by a nearly 3-1 ratio against same-sex marriage.

While the men are likely to be witnesses in the state’s case against Arlene’s, they did not complain about the shop’s treatment of them to either the attorney general or the Human Rights Commission. That issue was first raised in news reports.

Freed grew up in the Tri-Cities and has been on the faculty of Columbia Basin College for nearly 20 years, while Ingersoll, who moved to Washington in the 1990s, works as an operations manager for Goodwill in Richland.

The men say they were deeply hurt by the rejection, in part because they believed they had a meaningful relationship with the florist.

On the shop’s Facebook page, Stutzman acknowledges the relationship, but said that when it came to the couple’s planned September wedding, she told Ingersoll: “I could not do it because of my relationship with Jesus Christ.”

In her posting on Facebook, she said, Ingersoll told her he respected her opinion, they gave each other a hug and he left.

“I believe, biblically, that marriage is between a man and a woman,” she wrote on Facebook. “That is my conviction, yours may be different.”

Lornet Turnbull: 206-464-2420 or lturnbull@seattletimes.com. On Twitter @turnbullL.

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