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Originally published Saturday, April 27, 2013 at 5:28 PM

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Awful bill re-legalizes anti-gay bias

A new bill, triggered by the case of the florist who refused to sell flowers for a gay wedding, is supposed to be about religious freedom. Instead, it reads like the return of Jim Crow.

Seattle Times staff columnist

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I didn’t have a strong conviction one way or another about the story of the florist who refused to sell flowers for a gay wedding.

Until last week, that is, when a bunch of senators got involved and wrote up what’s got to be the most wrongheaded, retrograde bill I’ve ever seen introduced into the Washington state Legislature.

Earlier this year a florist in Richland, Wash., turned down a gay couple’s request for flowers for their wedding, citing Jesus’ teachings. The state sued her shop saying she had discriminated against the couple because they were gay.

It’s one of those cases where both sides arguably are right. Or at least have a point.

The state is right that it’s discriminatory to treat gay couples differently than straight couples in any “public accommodation.” Which any business is.

And the flower lady is right she shouldn’t have to go against her religious beliefs. News flash for gay-marriage backers: Many faiths remain 100 percent opposed to the idea of two men or two women marrying (although some are fully supportive and others are slowly coming around).

So what we have is a collision of two bedrock principles — equality of treatment versus religious freedom. Something’s gotta give. Which one?

On some issues like this I have sided with the religious conscience side, though I’m a nonbeliever myself. Live and let live and all that. When a pharmacist in Olympia said he couldn’t sell the morning-after pill due to his religion, I wrote that it was wrong for society to force the pharmacist, robot-like, into compliance (assuming the patient could get the pill another way).

The difference is the pharmacist was objecting to a specific medical procedure, not to the people using it. The florist’s objection seems more about the people. She says it’s only gays getting married she’s against, not the gays themselves. But that’s right up to the line, if not over it, of refusing to serve people because of something intrinsic to who they are.

So, I’d say the anti-discrimination side trumps here, or ought to. Religious conscience is vital, but it isn’t so all-important it ought to be a blanket defense for discriminating. It’s not hard to imagine how out-of-hand that could get.

Yet, appallingly, that is exactly what a law proposed last week by 11 state senators would do. (The prime sponsor is Sen. Sharon Brown, R-Kennewick.)

Responding to the florist case, it would re-legalize discrimination against gays and lesbians, so long as there’s a religious reason for it.

Senate Bill 5927 would amend the state’s anti-discrimination laws on jobs, housing and business transactions to make religious concerns supreme over all else.

Nothing in the state’s equal-treatment laws, the bill says, may burden a person’s freedom of religion. So both people and businesses therefore have “the right to deny services if providing those goods or services would be contrary to ... sincerely held religious beliefs, philosophical beliefs, or matters of conscience.”

Discriminating on the basis of race or religion would remain illegal under federal laws. So this is about gays and lesbians. The bill is so sweeping it appears you could fire someone for being gay as long as you said it was the Christian thing to do.

Obviously that’s not going to fly in this state, let alone be signed by this governor. But on a symbolic level it’s beyond depressing. It’s trying to put a new “right to deny services” into state anti-discrimination law! How much more Jim Crow could you get?

The state’s Richland florist case is admittedly no easy call. It messily pits two crucial principles against one another. It could end up exacting quite a toll on the florist, who by all accounts, including the gay couple’s, is a good person.

But the backward reaction to it, by these senators, shows why it was probably necessary after all.

Danny Westneat’s column appears Wednesday and Sunday. Reach him at 206-464-2086 or dwestneat@seattletimes.com

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