The Washington Attorney General is exerting the weight of his office on a 70-year-old grandmother. Amazingly, that grandmother is still standing. But she could lose everything she owns, all because she is unwilling to abandon her religious convictions and create unique artistic expression that violates her beliefs.
Barronelle Stutzman is a mother of eight, a grandmother of 23, and a floral artist. She is the owner of Arlene’s Flowers and Gifts, a corporation founded in 1989 and previously operated by her mother, before Barronelle purchased the company 12 years ago.
Robert Ingersoll was a regular customer of Arlene’s Flowers. During the past nine years, Barronelle estimates she sold flowers to Robert at least 20 times. They also became fast friends; Barronelle says, “[h]e has a very creative mind and we just kind of hit it off.” Barronelle knew that Robert was gay, and some of those floral arrangements were for Robert’s partner, Curt Freed.
Bob Ferguson is the Attorney General of Washington.
In early 2013, Robert asked Barronelle if she would use her artistic talents to design floral arrangements for his same-sex wedding ceremony. Because Barronelle follows the Bible’s teaching that marriage is only between a man and a woman, she felt obligated to politely decline the invitation. She explains, “as much as I loved Rob, I just couldn’t be a part of that. 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.”
After communicating her regrets to Robert, Barronelle referred him to several other local florists and the two continued to chat about Robert’s wedding plans. Before he left the store, they embraced. Robert and Curt had no trouble finding another source for flowers; in fact, they received several offers for free flowers.
While no formal complaint was filed with the State by the couple, Attorney General Ferguson heard about the matter and filed a lawsuit against Barronelle, accusing her of unlawful discrimination in violation of the Washington Law Against Discrimination (WLAD) and Consumer Protection Act (CPA). This was the first time that the Attorney General’s office has sought to single out and punish a private citizen under the CPA.
The ACLU was quick to follow suit, and filed a lawsuit on behalf of Robert and Curt.
Notably, both the ACLU and the Attorney General’s office filed suit not only against Arlene’s Flowers, but against Barronelle personally. Barronelle thus found herself at risk of losing not only her business, but also her home, her entire life savings, and everything she owns.
A Washington state trial court ruled on February 18 that Barronelle had committed unlawful discrimination. Perhaps most appalling is the efficiency with which the court obliterated any possibility that faith could coexist with “tolerance.” Indeed, the court was explicit in its finding that Barronelle’s religious belief could no longer be tolerated: “[Barronelle] cannot comply with both the law and her faith.”
Barronelle’s attorneys plan to appeal.
What the court failed to acknowledge in its conclusion is that aside from the state’s intolerance of her faith, Barronelle is also being asked to create artistic expression that she disagrees with. This too violates the First Amendment. The Supreme Court has held not only that First Amendment protection extends “beyond written or spoken words” but also that the freedom of speech “includes . . . the choice of what not to say.” Hurley v. Irish-Am. Gay, Lesbian & Bisexual Grp. of Bos., 515 U.S. 557, 569 (1995); Pac. Gas & Elec. Co. v. Pub. Utils. Comm‘n, 475 U.S. 1, 16 (1986) (citing Miami Herald Publ‘g Co. v. Tornillo, 418 U.S. 241, 258 (1974)).
Unless the appeal is successful, Barronelle faces the loss of everything she owns—her business, her home, her entire life savings, and other personal belongings. All because she made the principled choice to live—and create expression—in a manner consistent with her religious beliefs, a foundational freedom Americans have always enjoyed.
On Thursday, February 19, the Attorney General offered to drop his lawsuit if Barronelle would pay $2,001 and agree to give up her religious freedom. (Notably, the ACLU has made no similar offer.)
Not surprisingly, Barronelle quickly rejected the offer. In her letter, she told the Attorney General that “you don’t really understand me or what this conflict is all about. It’s about freedom, not money.” Barronelle added that “I certainly don’t relish the idea of losing my business, my home, and everything else that your lawsuit threatens to take from my family, but my freedom to honor God in doing what I do best is more important.”
There are at least three separate ironies to the state and ACLU’s oppression of Barronelle.
First, the law that is being used as a sword against Barronelle exists, ostensibly, to protect Washington’s citizens from unlawful discrimination. Yet the result of this prosecution has been a ruling that Barronelle’s Christian faith—and rights of expression—are incompatible with her private business, and that her religious convictions and expression will not be tolerated. In the meantime, Robert Ingersoll and Curt Freed easily obtained flowers from another vendor for their wedding—the court’s ruling notes that Ingersoll and Freed incurred a whopping $7.91 in mileage costs related to their efforts to select an alternative source of flowers.
Barronelle noted the irony of a one-way street of tolerance in her letter, stating, “Our state would be a better place if we respected each other’s differences, and our leaders protected the freedom to have those differences. Since 2012, same-sex couples all over the state have been free to act on their beliefs about marriage, but because I follow the Bible’s teaching that marriage is the union of one man and one woman, I am no longer free to act on my beliefs.”
Second, not only is Barronelle being sued by a friend she had served for nearly a decade, Arlene’s Flowers has served—and employed—gays for years. Yet even in the midst of this lawsuit, and while facing the loss of everything she owns, Barronelle continues to proclaim her care and concern for Robert Ingersoll, stating “I kindly served Rob for nearly a decade and would gladly continue to do so. I truly want the best for my friend.”
Third, it seems that some of the very individuals the Attorney General purports to be protecting by his dogged prosecution of Barronelle may in fact oppose his efforts to do so.
Barronelle also says she has received many cards, emails, and calls from those who identify as homosexual and support her right of free expression and religious freedom.
Just two days ago, Secretary of State John Kerry referred to the administration’s efforts to “reaffirm the universal human rights of all persons.” He stated that “[d]efending and promoting the human rights of LGBT persons is at the core of our commitment to advancing human rights globally – the heart and conscience of our diplomacy.” Nowhere, however, did Secretary Kerry reference religious liberty, or the plight of individuals like Barronelle.
Just last week I blogged about former Atlanta Fire Chief Kelvin Cochran, who was fired because he dared to express his Christian faith. Elaine Huguenin of Elane Photography in New Mexico, Jack Phillips of Masterpiece Cakeshop in Colorado, and Brendan Eich, founder and former CEO of Mozilla Corporation, have also faced serious repercussions for exercising their freedom of conscience, freedom of speech, and/or free exercise of religion. And there are countless others.
Religious freedom, freedom of expression, and freedom of conscience can no longer be assumed. Thankfully, people like Barronelle seem determined to make sure it doesn’t fade away with a whimper.