Yakima, Wash., Feb 20, 2015 / 16:01 pm
If you walk into Barronelle Stutzman's floral business, you're probably going to get a hug. She puts her heart into her work, from making beautiful arrangements to making customers feel like family.
"The joy of being here for so long is you get to know people personally," she said in a recent interview with Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF). "I don't consider the people that walk in the door customers, they're just people who want something to please someone else and that's my job."
But that all might soon be taken away from her.
The 70 year-old grandmother and sole owner of Arlene's Flowers and Gifts in Richland, Wash. found herself the target of two lawsuits after she declined to make floral arrangements for the same-sex wedding of one of her long-time customers, Robert Ingersoll. He and his partner, Curt Freed, took the case to court. The state of Washington soon followed, filing a suit after hearing about the story in the media.
It's been a difficult road. A state judge ruled Feb. 18 that Stutzman must provide full support for same-sex weddings, even though they are contrary to her Christian faith. According to the court, Stutzman's referral of a long-time customer to other businesses for floral arrangements for a same-sex ceremony violated Washington law. Both the state and the couple are seeking damages from Stutzman which would ruin her personally and professionally.
ADF attorneys will appeal the rulings – rulings which contradict the views of most Americans on the subject, according to a new AP-GfK poll.
Stutzman didn't think it would come to this. She considers Rob a friend – he's been patronizing her business for nine years, and they clicked over their shared creativity.
"He has a very creative mind and so we just sort of hit it off," Stutzman told ADF. She has even provided flower arrangements for Rob's partner in the past. But when he approached her about his upcoming wedding, she paused because of her beliefs.
"That was a real struggle to decide what to do with that," she said. "My husband and I talked it over and you know, as much as I love Rob, I just couldn't be a part of that."
"It wasn't something that I just flippantly said, 'Oh I'm not going to do Rob's wedding because he's gay.'"
ADF seniour counsel Kristen Waggoner, who argued before the court in December, said the men in the case had plenty of other options when it came to floral arrangements. Once the story broke, they even had offers for free flowers pouring in for their wedding. But that wasn't good enough for the couple, or for the state.
"Laws that are supposed to prohibit discrimination might sound good, but the government has begun to use these laws to hurt people – to force them to conform and to silence and punish them if they don't violate their religious beliefs on marriage," Waggoner said.
Stutzman is not a bigot, Waggoner added, as evidenced by the aforementioned flowers provided for other aspects of the couple's relationship. This case is about marriage and free expression, and Stutzman considers her designs to be an extension of herself.
"I think most artistic people, especially painters, they put their heart into their arrangements, it's part of them, it's part of who they are," Stutzman said. "And I think it's the same way for a florist."
"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," Waggoner explained.
"The lesson from the court's decisions is that 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."
There have been blessings and curses from the battle. There's been a lot of hate mail. But there's also been encouraging notes from total strangers, and a big lesson in following Christ.
"I have to have faith that he's going to protect me and to give me the courage and the knowledge and the wisdom to stand firm on this," Stutzman said.
"And also to help me understand what obedience is," she said, fighting tears, "and what following Christ is. You can't sit on the fence. Like he says, you can't be lukewarm."
Alliance Defending Freedom is a non-profit legal organization that advocates for the right of people to freely live out their faith. Attorney Alicia M. Berry of Liebler, Connor, Berry & St. Hilaire is assisting with the case and is one of more than 2,500 private attorneys allied with ADF.