Richland florist headed to court over gay marriage

RICHLAND, Wash. — The lawyer for a Richland florist sued for refusing to provide flowers for a gay marriage hopes to move the state lawsuit to federal court as a free speech case.

“What the state is saying is you are compelled to express assent on an issue that you don’t agree with, and that violates the First Amendment,” said attorney Justin D. Bristol, of Snohomish.

It’s not about discrimination, he said Wednesday.

Bristol represents Barronelle Stutzman, owner of Arlene’s Flowers. In March, Stutzman refused to provide flowers for the wedding of two long-time customers, Robert Ingersoll and Curt Freed, of Kennewick, because of her religious objection to gay marriage.

Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson announced a consumer protection lawsuit Tuesday against Stutzman for refusing the flower arrangements. It’s unlawful to discriminate against customers on the basis of sexual orientation.

“If a business provides a product or service to opposite-sex couples for their weddings, then it must provide same-sex couples the same product or service,” Ferguson said in a statement.

In the complaint filed Tuesday in Benton County Superior Court, the attorney general’s office seeks a court order requiring Arlene’s Flowers to comply with consumer protection law. The state also seeks a $2,000 fine.

Ferguson was elected in November’s election when Washington voters also passed a referendum affirming legal rights for same-sex marriage.

A person who answered the phone at Arlene’s on Wednesday said Stutzman isn’t talking about the case. Bristol said Stutzman doesn’t discriminate against homosexuals and has served them as customers and hired them as employees.

“It’s not a public accommodation case,” he said. “She simply doesn’t believe in gay marriage. She believes marriage should be between a man and a woman.”

It’s a religious issue and also one of expression, Bristol said.

Most free speech cases involve the government trying to prevent speech or expression, but in this case the government is trying to force Stutzman to express herself through flower-arranging in support of something she doesn’t believe in, Bristol said.

“Can the state require a painter to paint a portrait of a gay couple? Could the state require a musician to write a song?” Bristol asked. “Can the government compel them to say something they don’t want to say? It violates the First Amendment.”

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