Columns

Florist Wonders if There’s Still Room for Christian Businesses in America

image courtesy of ShutterStock

As one Christian business falls another fights on against what its owner sees as an infringement on religious liberties, and some wonder if there is still room for Christian beliefs in America.

The attorney general of Arkansas and her colleagues in 12 other states, along with several organizations, have made it clear where they stand in an amicus brief.

Barronelle Stutzman, the owner of Arlene’s Flowers in Richland, Wash., started this when she declined to create a floral arrangement for the same-sex wedding ceremony of a friend and longtime customer, Rob Ingersoll.

The Washington State Attorney General’s Office and the ACLU took matters into their own hands in the dispute among friends and filed suit, alleging Stutzman had violated the state and federal civil rights of Ingersoll and his partner.

If Ingersoll had asked for flowers for his partner’s birthday or some other event, Stutzman said she would have been only too happy to serve him. But Ingersoll wanted her to create a floral arrangement for his same-sex wedding.

That’s where Stutzman drew her line in the sand.

In a commentary for the Seattle Times titled, “Why a friend is suing me: the Arlene’s Flower story,” Stutzman explained that for her as a Christian, weddings have a special significance.

“This case is not about refusing service on the basis of sexual orientation or dislike for another person who is preciously created in God’s image,” Stutzman wrote. “I sold flowers to Rob for years. I helped him find someone else to design his wedding arrangements. I count him as a friend.”

Stutzman added that she hoped the state of Washington “would be as willing to honor my right to make those kind of choices as it is to honor Rob’s right to make his.”

A judge was not willing to be as accommodating as Stutzman hoped.

She was ordered to pay penalties and attorneys’ fees.

“It’s no accident that Judge Ekstrom’s ruling so closely mirrors our arguments, and we look forward to the decision on the remaining motions,” Washington State Attorney General Bob Ferguson said. “We believe Washington law is very clear that businesses in Washington cannot discriminate. If you serve opposite-sex partners, you must serve same-sex partners equally.”

The case is now in hands of the state of Washington’s Supreme Court.

Attorneys from the Alliance Defending Freedom are serving as Stutzman’s legal counsel.

“The trial court’s and [the state’s and the ACLU’s] view — that there can never be a free speech exception to public accommodation laws — endangers everyone,” ADF Senior Counsel Kristen Waggoner told the Baptist Press. “If correct, then the consciences of all citizens are fair game for the government.”

Waggoner said this is more than a question of whether there is still room for Christians at the nation’s table.

Waggoner also warned a Supreme Court decision against Stutzman, and for the Washington Law Against Discrimination, on which the suits are based, would cut both ways.

“(No longer) could an atheist painter decline to paint a mural celebrating the resurrection of Christ for a church,” she said. “Indeed, no speaker could exercise esthetic or moral judgments about what projects to take on where a customer claims the decision infringes on his or her rights under the WLAD.”

Arkansas Attorney General Leslie Rutledge led a 13-state coalition Sept. 29 in filing an amicus brief “urging the court to protect the religious conscience of its citizens.”

“This country has a rich history of protecting the rights of conscience and the free exercise of religion,” said Rutledge. “Unfortunately, these rights have recently come under a sustained and coordinated assault even though they are the very reason many came to this country in the first place.”

However, Hugh Spitzer and Peter Nicolas, who are on the faculty of the University of Washington Law School, opined in the News Tribune that Judge Ekstrom came to the correct decision.

Spitzer and Nicolas argued that when a company is granted a business license it has to follow the laws of the land that protect “public health, safety, and consumers.”

“For many years, Washington has barred businesses from discriminating based on race, creed, color, national origin, sex, veteran or military status, and sexual orientation,” Spitzer and Nicolas wrote. “Refusing to sell flowers to a same-sex couple is just as hurtful to them, and just as unlawful, as declining to serve African Americans at a diner or refusing to rent apartments to Jews and Muslims.”

Stutzman has to be hoping her journey ends on a happier note than did a similar quest undertaken by the owners of an Oregon business.

Aaron and Melissa Klein, the owners of Sweet Cakes by Melissa, sparked a nationwide debate over an LGBT customer’s right to be served several years ago.

The Oregon Labor Department ordered the Kleins to pay $135,000 in damages to the lesbian couple for whom the Kleins refused to bake a wedding cake.

Sweet Cakes by Melissa went out of business Oct. 6, according to its Facebook page.

“We lost our business,” Melissa Klein said in a video made by their lawyers this year. “You work so hard to build something up, and something you’ve poured your heart into and was your passion, to lose that has been devastating for me. “