- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 18, 2015

A judge ruled Wednesday that a Washington state florist who refused to provide flowers for a same-sex marriage ceremony based on her Christian beliefs violated state consumer protection laws.

The ruling against Barronelle Stutzman, the 70-year-old owner of Arlene’s Flowers in Richland, Wash., comes as the latest in a series of court decisions nationwide against Christian business owners who decline to provide services in support of gay weddings.

In a 60-page opinion, Benton County Superior Court Judge Alex Ekstrom ruled that the First Amendment protects Ms. Stutzman’s religious faith but not actions stemming from those beliefs that conflict with state anti-discrimination law.

“[T]he statutes address conduct, not beliefs, so the fact that the law makes a distinction between her actions in a public accommodation and that of a minister or a priest in a house or worship is in no way unfair,” said the opinion. “Further, Stutzman is not a minister, nor is Arlene’s Flowers a religious organization when they sell flowers to the general public.”

Alliance Defending Freedom attorney Kristen Waggoner said the ruling essentially forces Ms. Stutzman to violate her religious beliefs or lose her business.

“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,” said Ms. Waggoner, who represents the florist, in a statement.

Ms. Stutzman was sued by the state of Washington and two men who had asked her in March 2013 to prepare flowers for their wedding, several months after the state approved gay marriage in 2012. One of the men, Robert Ingersoll, had been a customer of Arlene’s Flowers for nearly a decade.

Ms. Stutzman, who had served gay customers over the years, declined to create the custom floral arrangements for the wedding but referred the men to several other local florists.

“The two men had no problem getting the flowers they wanted. They received several offers for free flowers, and the marketplace gives them plenty of options,” Ms. Waggoner said. “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.”

Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson praised the judge’s ruling Wednesday, saying, “The law is clear: If you choose to provide a service to couples of the opposite sex, you must provide the same service to same-sex couples.”

About 3 percent of Arlene’s Flowers’ business involved preparing floral arrangements for weddings.

“Stutzman cannot comply with both the law and her faith if she continues to provide flowers for weddings as part of her duly licensed business,” said the judge in his opinion.

Under the law, both the state and the couple may pursue penalties of up to $2,000 per violation as well as legal fees against Arlene’s Flowers and Ms. Stutzman personally, which may put her out of business and place her home and savings at risk, said her attorneys.

Ms. Stutzman said in a Wednesday statement that, “I just want the freedom to live and work faithfully and according to what God says about marriage without fear of punishment.”

“America would be a better place if citizens respected each others’ differences and the government still protected the freedom to have those differences,” said Ms. Stutzman. “Instead, the government is coming after me and everything I have just because I won’t live my life the way the state says I should.”

ADF attorneys said they plan to appeal the ruling.

• Valerie Richardson can be reached at vrichardson@washingtontimes.com.

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