Shop Owner Sued By State After Denying Flowers To Gay Couple

The Attorney General in the state of Washington is suing a small florist for refusing to provide flowers for a gay wedding.

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To Washington state now, where the state's attorney general is suing a florist for refusing to supply flower arrangements for a same-sex wedding. As NPR's Martin Kaste reports from Seattle, opponents of same-sex marriage are jumping to the florist's defense.

MARTIN KASTE, BYLINE: Baronelle Stutzman owns Arlene's Flowers and Gifts, a shop in Richland, Washington. She wouldn't talk to us but her lawyer, J.D. Bristol, says his client does not discriminate against gay people - far from it.

J.D. BRISTOL: She has gay clients. She has gay employees. She has simply said, I don't want to do a floral arrangement for a gay wedding - that's it.

KASTE: She said no last month to Robert Ingersoll and Curt Freed, regular customers at the shop who are now planning their wedding for September. Bristol says she had to say no because she is opposed to gay marriage on religious grounds. But for State Attorney General Bob Ferguson, that is unacceptable.

BOB FERGUSON: The business owner sells flowers to heterosexual couples who wish to get married, but she has declined to do that for a gay couple who wishes to get married. And you simply can't do that under the law, the same way that she can't refuse to sell flowers to an interracial couple.

KASTE: Ferguson is suing the florist under the state's Consumer Protection Act, which bars merchants from discriminating against customers because of sexual orientation. Her lawyer, on the other hand, says this is really a case about religious freedom. And he says there's also some free-speech rights mixed in.

BRISTOL: What if Arlene's Flowers was Arlene's Artists, and a gay couple came and said, we want you to paint a portrait at our wedding. And so, you know, Arlene's would say, well, I don't believe in gay marriage, so I'm going to decline to do that. Could the government then step in, and require an artist to paint a picture depicting something that the artist doesn't believe in?

KASTE: Washington state voters passed same-sex marriage last fall. And some of the people who campaigned against it then are now saying, I told you so.

CHRIS PLANTE: You know, it is what we talked about for a year.

KASTE: Chris Plante is with the National Organization for Marriage. He helped to run the no campaign in Washington state, and he's now doing the same in Rhode Island.

PLANTE: What is happening to Arlene's Flowers is exactly what we have said would happen. Small businesses are being compelled to violate their conscience.

KASTE: Both sides of the marriage debate are now squaring off over Arlene's Flowers. The ACLU has jumped in on behalf of the gay couple that Arlene's turned away. The couple wants an apology, and money for a charity. Activists on both sides see the potential for a groundbreaking test case, but that may be hoping for too much.

PETER NICOLAS: I don't think this is going to go very far.

KASTE: Peter Nicolas is a professor at the University of Washington Law School, specializing in civil rights and gay rights. He says the courts have already concluded that religious freedom does not trump other generally applicable laws. For instance, you're not exempt from drug laws just because your religion makes ceremonial use of a narcotic.

NICOLAS: The mere fact that the law might have an incidental effect for some individuals of conflicting with their religious beliefs, does not create a First Amendment defense to complying with the law.

KASTE: If a merchant's religious convictions prevent her from serving the whole public, he says, maybe she should reconsider serving the public at all.

Martin Kaste, NPR News, Seattle.

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