French writer Alexis De Tocqueville got it right more than 150 years ago when he observed, “Scarcely any political question arises in the United States that is not resolved, sooner or later, into a judicial question.” A consumer-protection lawsuit against a Richland florist offers a practical illustration.
On Tuesday, Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson filed the suit against Arlene’s Flowers and Gifts and its owner, Barronelle Stutzman. On March 1, Stutzman told Robert Ingersoll, a longtime customer, that she couldn’t provide flowers for his same-sex wedding because it was inconsistent with her Christian beliefs. Ingersoll posted on Facebook that the rejection gave him a “heavy heart.” He told Stutzman that he respected her opinion. They hugged.
Now, navigate this encounter with a legal compass. Is this a political question, a violation of consumer protection, an expression of religious liberty, a human rights question? All of the above?
“As Attorney General, it is my job to enforce the laws of the state of Washington,” Ferguson said. “Under the Consumer Protection Act, it is 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.”
Unpack the legal argument, and there’s validity to Ferguson’s suit. In 2006, sexual orientation became a protected class under the Washington Law Against Discrimination. As far back as 1973, the Legislature authorized a subsection to the discrimination law that unfair trade or commerce violated the Consumer Protection Act.
The salient question is whether this suit is in the public interest. The law and Ferguson say yes. Ferguson’s office gave Stutzman an opportunity to make amends, but her attorney rejected the offer. Reconciliation — everyone’s first choice — appears unlikely.
In supporting marriage equality, The Herald Editorial Board opined that, “One of the biggest anti-marriage myths, popularized by opponents, revolves around R-74’s legal fallout. In brief, lawsuits won’t take off after same-sex marriage is legalized.”
So, were we wrong? No, Ferguson says, the law traces back to 2006. Technically right can feel some-other-way uncertain, however.
Ferguson is idealistic, whip smart, and very likely a future governor. Twenty years from now, will this case be the sit-at-the-lunch-counter example? It’s too early to know.
In the conflict-averse Pacific Northwest, lawsuits kindle anxiety. Ferguson is doing his job. Something constructive needs to come of it.