State sues florist for refusing service to gay couple

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by HEATHER GRAF / KING 5 News

Bio | Email | Follow: @HeatherGrafK5

KING5.com

Posted on April 9, 2013 at 8:14 PM

Updated Wednesday, Apr 10 at 7:48 AM

OLYMPIA, Wash. -- Attorney General Bob Ferguson has filed a consumer protection lawsuit against a florist who refused to provide wedding flowers to a same-sex couple.
 
The lawsuit is the first of its kind since Washington voters legalized same-sex marriage last fall.
 
The complaint was filed in Benton County on Tuesday against Barronelle Stutzman, owner of Arlene's Flowers and Gifts in Richland. The lawsuit is in response to a March 1 incident where she refused service to longtime customer Robert Ingersoll.
 
On the shop's Facebook page, Stutzman described what happened as follows:
 
"This customer has been in many times and purchased flowers from us.  When it came to doing his wedding, I said, 'I could not do it because of my relationship with Jesus Christ.' He thanked me and said 'He respected my opinion.' We talked and gave each other a hug, and he left. I believe biblically that marriage is between a man and a woman. That is my conviction, yours may be different."
 
Stutzman also said she has had the privilege of working with some very talented people that happen to be gay, and if people choose not to shop at Arlene's because of their beliefs, she understands.
 
The customer involved in this incident, Robert Ingersoll, posted his own Facebook message on his page and talked about his "heavy heart" over what had happened. He said he'd been shopping at that particular florist for quite some time, enjoyed getting to know the owner and her staff, and felt very comfortable and connected to them.
 
The two posts, combined, prompted hundreds of comments both for and against what took place at the shop.
 
Stutzman did not return a call Tuesday night seeking comment.  Ingersoll and his partner said they are "heartened" by the Attorney General's lawsuit, but couldn't comment further at this time.
 
Ferguson had sent a letter on March 28 asking the florist to comply with the law, but said Stutzman's attorneys responded Monday saying she would challenge any state action to enforce the law.
 
Washington state voters upheld a same-sex marriage law in November, and the law took effect in December. The state's anti-discrimination laws were expanded in 2006 to include sexual orientation.

The same-sex marriage law does not require churches or other religious organizations to perform weddings between gay partners.
 
Ferguson seeks a permanent injunction requiring the store to comply with the state's consumer protection laws and seeks at least $2,000 in fines.
 
The executive director of the Family Policy Institute of Washington says they predicted these types of lawsuits last fall, while campaigning against Referendum 74.
 
"This case goes to the heart of the question of whether people in this culture still have the freedom to disagree, and runs their personal lives and their businesses and make decisions in their own life that are consistent with who they are," said Joseph Backholm.  "This is itself an interference in what people do in their private lives."
 
Backholm said he expects his organization and others like it to quickly back Arlene's Flowers, as the case moves forward.
 
An attorney representing Stutzman calls the lawsuit a violation of his client's First Amendment right to free speech, and promises to take the case to federal court if they have to.

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