Putting florist, grandmother and devout Southern Baptist Barronelle Stutzman out of business was not enough for some Washington state officials. She could lose her home and life savings as well after a Washington superior court judge ruled that she violated the state's anti-discrimination law because she declined to provide flowers for a same-sex couple's wedding due to her religious convictions.
After Benton County Superior Court Judge ruled on Wednesday that Stutzman violated the law when she refused to provide floral arrangements for the wedding of Robert Ingersoll and Curt Freed in 2013, the possibility became real that Stutzman can lose her business, home, savings and other personal assets once a summary judgement is reached, according to Stutzman's lawyer Kristen Waggoner.
"The lesson from the court's decisions is that you put your home, your family business, and your life at risk by daring to defy a government mandate that forces you to promote views you believe are wrong," Waggoner, an attorney with the Alliance Defending Freedom, said in a statement. "A government that tells you what you can't say is bad enough but a government that tells you what you must say is terrifying."
Although Stutzman, who is the owner of Arlene's Flowers in Richland, has received thousands of hate letters, insults and threats from LGBT activists who decry her as prejudiced for not providing flowers to Ingersoll and Freed's wedding, Stutzman willfully served all of Ingersoll's floral requests for the nine years that Ingersoll came to her shop to buy flowers for Freed.
"She had established a really warm relationship with Rob Ingersoll, who had been in for nine years and come in and spent a good amount of money throughout the years and they had gotten to know each other pretty well," Waggoner said in a video posted to ADF website.
"He has a very creative mind and we just kind of hit it off," Stutzman admitted.
In the video, Stutzman discusses how she prepared many floral arrangements for Ingersoll over the years. She explained that she had no problem making flowers for Ingersoll and Freed to send to one another.
But a few months after gay marriage was passed in Washington in 2012, Ingersoll came to the shop and told Stutzman that he was getting married and he wanted her to provide the flowers for the wedding. Stutzman was caught in a tough spot as she did not want to hurt her friend's feelings and did not want defy her religious convictions that tell her that marriage is only between a man and a woman.
"It was a real struggle to decide what to do with that. My husband and I talked it over and as much as I loved Rob, I just couldn't be a part of that," Stutzman asserted. "If I did Rob's wedding, it would be from my heart because I think he is a really special person and I would want to make it really special for him. It wasn't something that I said, 'Oh, I'm not going to do Rob's wedding because he is gay.'"
"I think most artistic people, especially painters, they put their heart into their arrangements as part of them and part of who they are. I think that is the same thing with a florist," Stutzman added.
When Stutzman told Ingersoll that she would not be able to service his wedding, she did not expect to receive backlash. The news of Stutzman's denial of service for a gay wedding hit social media and stirred outrage and even caught the attention of Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson.
Ferguson's office later filed a lawsuit on behalf of Washington state against Stutzman, after sending Stutzman a letter demanding that she service gay weddings. Even though no official complaint was filed against Stutzman, Ferguson's office pursued the lawsuit and accused Stutzman and her business of violating the state's non-discrimination laws.
"The attorney general's action in this case is unprecedented in Washington state," Waggoner explained. "We have never had an attorney general take the position that this attorney general has taken."
After news of the state's lawsuit against Stutzman broke, the American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit on behalf of the gay couple, even though Waggoner says the couple admitted getting offers from over 20 different florists to provide flowers for their wedding for free.
In January, Judge Eckstrom ruled that Stutzman could also be sued on a personal level in addition to being sued on a business capacity. Stutzman is not only at risk of paying the $2,000 fine for violating the state's discrimination law, but is also at risk of having to pay thousands of dollars in legal fees, which could result in her losing her home and business, Waggoner claims.
"She is at great risk as a result of serving someone lovingly and in a kind way for nine years," Waggoner said. "Because you won't do one same sex wedding, you are going to lose your house or your business and she's been working in this business for 40 years."
Waggoner said penalizing someone for acting on their own religious beliefs violates the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. Waggoner said ADF plans to appeal the judge's ruling.
"This is about marriage. It's not about bigotry. She knew of their [homosexual] relationship. She provided flowers that she sent to each other. But when it came to marriage, that was the line. Because, as she will tell you, 'Marriage represents the relationship of Christ and His church.' It's a sacred covenant," Waggoner contends. "This case is coercing someone to engage in expression and that is against America's tradition and it's unconstitutional."
Even though Stutzman is being portrayed by critics and some media outlets as an intolerable anti-homosexual, Stutzman has employed many homosexuals in her shop in the past.
"I have hired all walks of people in different circumstances, and had the privilege of working with some very talented people that happen to be gay," Stutzman wrote in a Facebook post. "Since that day, we have received many comments on same-sex marriages. I believe, biblically, that marriage is between a man and a woman. That is my conviction, yours may be different."
Despite the countless hate letters she received, Stutzman said that she also receives letters of support from Christians all around the world encouraging her to stand strong in her Christian convictions.
"I have to have faith that He is going to protect me and give me the courage, the knowledge and the wisdom to stand firm on this," Stutzman asserted. "This has also helped me understand what obedience is and… what following Christ is. You can't sit on the fence and like He says, 'You can't be lukewarm.' That's what I was. I was lukewarm."