Free to Believe

Barronelle Stutzman

Arlene's Flowers: Richland, Washington

After a longtime business relationship with an openly gay customer, Barronelle Stutzman, owner of Arlene's Flowers in Richland, Washington, found herself fighting for her rights.  When her client, Robert Ingersoll, stopped by Arlene's Flowers in March to make arrangements for his upcoming wedding, Barronelle kindly told him that she couldn't help.  As a Christian, she explained, she objected to court-created same-sex marriage on moral grounds.  Robert said he respected her opinion, the two hugged, and parted ways. 

To Stutzman's surprise, they were reunited by an unexpected third party: the Washington State Attorney General, who sued Arlene's Flowers for sexual discrimination.  "Nonsense," her attorney, JD Bristol responded.  "Arlene's Flowers has catered to all patrons, including homosexuals, for many years."  In fact, he pointed out, "Arlene's Flowers has had openly gay employees."  "This is about gay marriage," Bristol argued, "it's not about a person being gay.  She has a conscientious objection to homosexual 'marriage,' not homosexuality.  It violates her conscience." 

Unlike some other lawsuits, Barronelle's case was unique in that she has a history of serving Ingersoll on several other occasions.  She only drew the line here because it would require her participation in a ceremony that violated her faith.  If she refused, however, the state threatened a $2,000 fine.  But as soon as she started fighting that lawsuit, the state attorney general launched another.  Now the florist of 40 years was being hauled before a court in a legal battle that could cost her the business she spent her life building. Plenty of other florists were willing to provide flowers for same-sex ceremonies, yet the state attorney general insisted on going after her personal finances [and assets] as well.

After the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) filed a second lawsuit, Barronelle turned to Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF).  Together, they countersued Washington for violating her Christian beliefs.  "Marriage has religious significance," ADF argued, "apart from any civil significance.  [Stutzman] believed that [servicing a gay marriage] would compel her to express a message with her creativity that violates God's commands."  This is exactly what groups like FRC and the Family Policy Institute of Washington (FPIW) warned about before Washington State's November 2012 vote to redefine marriage. 

"In America, the government is supposed to protect freedom, not use intolerance for certain viewpoints to intimidate citizens into acting contrary to their faith," said ADF's Dale Schowengerdt. "The attorney general has acted inappropriately by trying to intimidate Barronelle through his lawsuit rather than leaving the process where the law says such matters need to take place.  Plenty of other florists are willing to provide flowers for same-sex ceremonies, yet both lawsuits against Barronelle insist on going after not only her business, but going after her personally as well. That's extraordinary, and we're asking the court to put a stop to it." 

But the court chose not to put a stop to it. In State of Washington v. Arlene's Flowers, Benton County Superior Court Judge Alexander Ekstrom ruled on January 7, 2015 that Barronelle was personally liable for the claims against her, placing both her personal and professional livelihood in jeopardy. The move, a bold and aggressive one, wasn't considered all that viable by some experts, who thought Stutzman would be shielded by the Consumer Protection Act.  Not so, ruled Judge Alex Ekstrom.  In a 35-page decision, he said the state could move forward with its campaign to financially destroy the Washington grandmother.  "The Court concludes that the legislature intended to allow the [attorney general] independent unfettered authority to bring this action."  In other words, the judge suggested that the state should be able to rob individuals of their homes, livelihoods, and anything else of value simply because they hold a different political view than the people in power.

On February 18, 2015, Benton County Superior Court Judge Alexander Ekstrom ruled that the floral artist and grandmother must provide full support for wedding ceremonies that are contrary to her faith.

In a lengthy 60-page opinion, the court argued that Barronelle's "relationship with Jesus Christ" doesn't give her the freedom to turn down business—even if that business violates her personal beliefs.  "Religious motivation does not excuse compliance with the law," Ekstrom wrote in his decision about the 2013 store flap.  When long-time customers approached Arlene's Flowers about making centerpieces for their same-sex wedding, Barronelle politely declined. 

As far as the court is concerned, there is a "direct and insoluable conflict between Stuzman's religiously-motivated conduct and the laws of the state of Washington."  In the clash between religious liberty or same-sex marriage, something has to give.  And that "something," this court said, is freedom.  It's a sobering indication of where this country is headed, said ADF attorney Kristen Waggoner.  "The message of these rulings is unmistakable: the government will bring about your personal and professional ruin if you don't help celebrate same-sex marriage... You put your home, your family business, and your life savings at risk by daring to defy a government mandate that forces you to promote views you believe are wrong." 

As for Barronelle, who had already launched a counter-suit against Washington State, her request is simple: "I just want the freedom to live and work faithfully and according to what God says about marriage without fear of punishment.  Others have the freedom to say or not what they want to about marriage, and that's all I'm asking for as well."

Attorney General Bob Ferguson made a settlement offer on February 19, 2015. On February 20, 2015, Barronelle sent a letter declining the offered settlement. "Your offer reveals that you don't really understand me or what this conflict is all about," Stutzman explained. "It's about freedom, not money. I certainly don't relish the idea of losing my business, my home, and everything else that your lawsuit threatens to take from my family, but my freedom to honor God in doing what I do best is more important.... You chose to attack my faith and pursue this not simply as a matter of law, but to threaten my very means of working, eating, and having a home. If you are serious about clarifying the law, then I urge you to drop your claims against my home, business, and other assets."

Photo credit: Courtesy of Alliance Defending Freedom

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