The questions raised by the Attorney General's suit are very serious. Unfortuntaely, most of the debate will be of the knee jerk variety.
So be it. But when someone is coerced to violate their conscience and beliefs, red flags should be raised.
State Attorney General Bob Ferguson on Tuesday filed a consumer protection lawsuit against Arlene's Flowers & Gifts, a Richland florist that refused to supply flowers to the same-sex marriage of a longtime customer.
Ferguson said he sent a March 28 letter to owner Barronelle Stutzman asking her to reconsider and supply flowers to customer Robert Ingersoll. Through an attorney, Stutzman declined to change her position.
"As Attorney General, it is my job to enforce the laws of the state of Washington," said Ferguson. "Under the Consumer Protection Act, it is unlawful to discriminate against customers based on sexual orientation. If a business provides a product or service to opposite-sex couples for their weddings, then it must provide same sex couples the same product or service."
The lawsuit by Ferguson is bound to revive a warning raised by opponents of marriage equality in last fall's Washington Voter's Pamphlet statement against Referendum 74. Foes stated:
"People who disagree with this new definition (of marriage) could find themselves facing sanctions, as has occurred elsewhere. Church groups have lost their tax exemptions. Small businesses were sued. Wedding professionals have been fined."
The supporters of same-sex marriage, in their rebuttal, stated: "Lawsuits haven't increased in states with same-sex marriage. Liberty and pursuit of happiness are core American values."
An employee at Arlene's Flowers and Gifts said late Tuesday that Stutzman was not present, adding: "None of us will have any comment." Last month, Stutzman told KEPR-TV in the Tri-Cities:
"He (Ingersoll) said he decided to get married and before he got through I grabbed his hand and said, 'I am sorry. I can't do your wedding because of my relationship with Jesus Christ.' We hugged each other and he left, and I assumed it was the end of the story."
Ingersoll and his partner, Curt Freed, were decade-long customers of Arlene's Flowers & Gifts. They went online with the refusal and the story went viral. Stutzman refused to change her position, saying: "It's a personal conviction. It's not a matter of being right or wrong. It's my belief."
The AG's office has filed a complaint in Benton County Superior Court asking for a permanent injunction requiring Arlene's Flowers & Gifts to comply with provisions of the Consumer Protection Act. It is asking that a $2,000 fine be imposed for every violation.
First, I would say to my gay marriage advocate friends that there is no equivalancy between so-called religious beliefs that dictated a separation of the races and gay marriage. Clearly, in the case of civil rights, there are constitutional guarantees regarding the individual rights of blacks, as opposed to no inherent "right" to marry - same sex or opposite sex.
What about Washington state law? It appears that if the AG goes ahead with the suit that the law will be challenged in federal court. The attorney for the florist has indicated as much, and this sets up a fascinating tug of war between the state and an individual's religious beliefs. Does the state have an inherent right to force someone to violate their conscience? The AG thinks so, which opens up a clear slippery slope that no one on either side should want to see.
In this case, the florist appears to be 100% sincere in refusing to cater to a long-time customer's marriage. But what about the same sex couple and their complaint? If they were as sincere as the florist, would they have splashed their case all over the internet? Or is this simply a matter of ginning up support for gay marriage?
Whatever the motivations of either party, the issue, if decided by the courts, will have far reaching consequences.