US: Washington state sues florist for refusing to provide service for same-sex wedding

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The US state of Washington’s attorney general has filed a lawsuit against a florist which refused to provide flowers to a same-sex wedding.

The consumer protection action filed seeks $2000 (£1300), in fines, as well as requiring Arlene’s Flowers to comply with the state’s consumer protection laws, which prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation.

The owner told the longtime customer that the shop could not provide the service “because of [their] relationship with Jesus Christ.”

Washington state legalized equal marriage in November, and despite an increase in support for it, has remained divided over the issue.

A Facebook group was started in March named ‘Boycott Arlene’s Flowers’, while the shop itself has received an influx of messages of support. It requested financial help with its legal defence, and some had written on the page pledging money towards it.

Writing on the shop’s page, one supporter wrote: “Stand strong for what is healthy, right and Godly.”

Someone critical of the shop’s actions, however, wrote that “this is about the law… There is not an ‘I believe in Jesus so the laws don’t apply to me’ exemption.”

The couple who were refused service for their wedding, Robert Ingersoll and Curt Freed, had been buying flowers from the shop for almost ten years, reports the Los Angeles Times, and approached the shop’s owner Barronelle Stutzman, to provide flowers for their wedding in September.

She refused, and said, writing on her Facebook page: “When it came to doing his wedding, I said, ‘I could not do it because of my relationship with Jesus Christ.’ He thanked me and said he respected my opinion. We talked and gave each other a hug and he left.”

She said she believed that “biblically” that marriage should be between one man and one woman.

“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,” she said.

Ingersoll, however, said that the couple were deeply troubled by Stutzman’s decision to decline to provide the flowers for their wedding.

He said in an interview with the Tri-City Herald: “It really hurt because it was somebody I knew… We laid awake all night Saturday. It was eating at our souls. There was never a question she’d be the one to do our flowers. She does amazing work.”

Attorney General Bob Ferguson, who filed the lawsuit, announced that he had offerd Stutzman the chance to reconsider her decision, but that she had refused.

“As Attorney General, it is my job to enforce the laws of the state of Washington,” he said. “If a business provides a product or service to opposite-sex couples for their wedding, then it must provide same-sex couples the same product or service.”

The American Civil Liberties Union also weighed in on the argument, writing to Stutzman saying it would file a separate civil lawsuit for damages on behalf of the couple.

It also requested that she agreed to begin providing flowers without discriminating on the basis of sexual orientation, that she publish a letter of apology, and donate $5,000 to a local youth centre, in lieu of attorneys’ fees.

ACLU attorney Michael R Scott said in the letter: “Your refusal to sell flowers to Mr. Ingersoll and Mr. Freed for their wedding has hurt them very deeply. It is a disturbing reminder of the history of discrimination and disparate treatment that they and other gay men and women have experienced over the years.”