Imagine Robert Ingersoll’s hurt and humiliation last month when his local florist refused to do the flower arrangements for his wedding to Curt Freed, his partner of nine years.

As longtime customers of Arlene’s Flowers and Gifts in Richland, Washington, Ingersoll and Freed had mistakenly assumed that shop owner Barronelle Stutzman would be happy to provide the service.

But also imagine the pain Stutzman felt at having to turn down a friend and neighbor. Here’s how she described the awkward scene to KEPR-TV:

“I grabbed his hand and said ‘I am sorry.’ I can’t do your wedding because of my relationship with Jesus Christ.’ We hugged each other and he left, and I assumed it was the end of the story.”

As it turns out, the story was only just beginning.

On April 9th, the state’s attorney general filed a consumer protection lawsuit against the florist and the ACLU, representing the gay couple, is now asking for Stutzman to apologize and agree to serve gay weddings in the future.

This painful dispute confronts the courts – and all of us – with a cruel choice between two compelling values central to the American commitment to liberty:

The right of citizens to be free from discrimination in places of public accommodation is pitted against the right of religious business owners to follow their conscience in matters of faith.

Unfortunately, this is not an isolated incident. A small, but growing number of conflicts have already broken out in other states where bakers and photographers have balked at providing services to same-sex weddings. Dressmakers are probably next.

Stutzman argues that she is not discriminating against gay people. She points out that she has hired openly gay people and has many gay customers. In an interview with the Seattle Times, her lawyer framed Stutzman’s views this way:

“This is about gay marriage, it’s not about a person being gay. She has a conscientious objection to homosexual marriage, not homosexuality. It violates her conscience.”

But gay couples seeking wedding services see this argument as a distinction without a difference. When they enter a business that serves the public, they expect to be treated like every other couple – particularly in states like Washington where gay marriage is now legal.

Although it upsets some gay rights advocates whenever they hear it, the First Amendment requires us to protect liberty of conscience as far as possible. That’s why, for example, many people on all sides support “conscience clauses” for houses of worship and religiously affiliated organizations in states that recognize gay marriage.

Catholic charities, to cite a controversial example, should be not forced to provide adoption services to same-sex couples in violation of Catholic teaching, as long as those couples have ready access to other providers.

But any business serving the public is obligated not to discriminate against customers on the basis of sexual orientation. And no matter how gay-friendly Stutzman claims to be, refusing to treat Ingersoll and Freed like other couples is treating them like second-class citizens because they are gay.

If business owners were exempted from non-discrimination laws on religious grounds, where would the line be drawn? What about religious objections to inter-racial marriage – commonplace at one time and still held by some? If Stutzman wins her case, why can’t another religious florist refuse to serve a mixed race couple?

I strongly support finding ways to protect religious claims of conscience whenever possible. But when it comes to places of public accommodation, our commitment to non-discrimination should trump religious claims for exemption from civil rights laws.

Ingersoll and Freed, of course, can find another florist. But they shouldn’t have to suffer the humiliation of asking florists, bakers, photographers, or other providers if they’re willing to provide services for gay weddings.

Business owners have a right to their religious convictions. But when they open their doors to the public, they have a civic and legal responsibility to uphold the civil rights of every customer.

Arlene’s Flower and Gift Shop will likely lose this case – and gay couples will take another step toward equal treatment under the law.

But the personal pain on both sides will linger for years to come, a tragic reminder that culture wars always exact a heavy price.

Categories: Beliefs

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Charles C. Haynes

Charles C. Haynes

Dr. Charles C. Haynes is director of the Religious Freedom Education Project at the Newseum and a senior scholar at the First Amendment Center. He writes and speaks extensively on religious liberty and religion in American public life.


  1. Dr. Haynes misses the point in Arlene’s stand. She is not discriminating against the persons of Ingersoll and Freed but against their ACTION. When I object to a friend’s act of adultery I am not discriminating against him or his freedom, but I have every right, and even obligation, to refuse any cooperation by facilitating the act. The mere fact that same-sex marriage happens to be legal in some states does not mean it is morally permissible. That is precisely why it is not allowed in many states and countries.

  2. You can have constitutional freedom of religion, or you can have legalized gay marriage. You cannot have both at the same time.

    American Christians are in genuine, severe trouble.

  3. People who act and believe they are superior to an entire group of other people and who are entitled to deprive that group of equal rights, equal protection of the law, and to not be discriminated against ARE like those who claimed victim status, i.e., denying women the vote, blacks freedom, inter-racial marriage, and not LGBT same love same rights FACING THE END OF THEIR overly entitled and wrongful actions.

    Oh MY GOD, you will have to treat all people as your equals, how terrible for you! Is this not truly god’s will rather than the wrong ideas you grew up with and hold onto?

  4. Raymond Takashi Swenson

    Personal services are different from buying stuff off the shelf. The gay couple had bought flowers and standard arrangements before at the flower shop. The owner simply declined to become deeply involved in making special decorations that would require her to endorse the same sex wedding. Alternatively, she could be forced to do the work, but do it poorly because she was being coerced against her conscience. How would that serve the gay couple?

    Making special custom flower arrangements for a wedding involves personal service and direct involvement in the actions of the event. The gay couple was able to get the services they needed from someone who was willing to take money in exchange for services. The penalty on the first florist was she lost a substantial opportunity to serve customers, and lost income, but the gay couple did not suffer at all. Their burden was to spend a minute to find another florist on their smart phones and call them up.

    This was not withholding medical care, or food or housing, or lodging during travel. This was a personal service involving substantial personal investment fo creativity and enthusiasm.

    Consider a hypothetical. An artist known for portraiture is asked to make a portrait of a retiring CEO of a company. The artist refuses because the CEO contributed several thousand dollars to advertising opposing passage of a same sex marriage initiative, based on encouragement from his denomination. The artist is discriminating against the CEO because of the CEO’s religious beliefs. Is the Attorney General of the state going to prosecute the artist for religious discrimination? Is the governemnt going to force the artist to accept commissions from anyone, regardless of religious viewpoint?

    What if the artist is a photographer who is asked to photograph a same sex wedding, taking both formal portraits and candid shots during the ceremony and celebration, and the photographer refuses because she objects to same sex marriage on religious grounds, that it is a form of fornication and not legitimate in the eyes of God, and that she would be violating her convenants with God, endangering her own salvation if she participated in support of such a sinful activity?

    The fact is that, apart from goods and services that are either extremely urgent or commodities, when the goods or services are of a highly personal nature involving creativity and commitment, a person is not going to be able to give the best service when coerced. They are punished already by the denial of an opportunity to earn money, and may well be losing business from other people who disagree with their views. Why isn’t that loss of business enough punishment, especially since there is no evidence that same sex couples are actually being deprived of the goods and services they need. They Are getting those services. They just have no particular legal claim on the services being supplied by a particular artist. We should not force a gay artist to serve a Christian couple against his will, nor force a Christian artist to serve a gay couple against her will.

    For decades the US military was willing to forego the services of men who were conscientious objectors to engaging in combat, even though the defense of the country was at stake. We can afford to accommodate the conscience of some Christians and others when it involves services of a very personal nature, including flower arrangements, cake decoration, photography, music, and other art. Same sex couples tend to be financially more prosperous than average, and their money can procure the services they want, even if they cannot coerce people into embracing their same sex marriages. Is it really important to society to punish a Christian with thousands of dollars in penalties, bankruptcy, and even jail time in order to satisfy the thirst for revenge of a gay couple who didn’t feel properly honored? Should society be encouraging the indulgence of such an anti-social emotion? As the great majority of states have still not adopted same sex marriage, how is the government punishment of Christians who simply decline their personal involvement in same sex marriage going to affect the debates in those states?

    • Nonsense. As Judge Robert N. Spencer of the Colorado Office of Administrative Courts, ruling against Denver-based Masterpiece CakeShop wrote in his final paragraph:
      “Finally, Respondents argue that if they are compelled to make a cake for a same-sex wedding, then a black baker could not refuse to make a cake bearing a white-supremacist message for a member of the Aryan Nation; and an Islamic baker could not refuse to make a cake denigrating the Koran for the Westboro Baptist Church. However, neither of these fanciful hypothetical situations proves Respondents’ point. In both cases, it is the explicit, unmistakable, offensive message that the bakers are asked to put on the cake that gives rise to the bakers’ free speech right to refuse. That, however, is not the case here, where Respondents refused to bake any cake for Complainants regardless of what was written on it or what it looked like. Respondents have no free speech right to refuse because they were only asked to bake a cake, not make a speech.”

      Legal expert Ari Ezra Waldman wrote: “…the Catholic Church is different than a construction company: the former deals in piety and salvation; the latter deals in two-by-fours and split level condos. If religion is the product, then maybe the exemption could apply; where religious is irrelevant to the business, you can’t claim to be “religious” just because it suits you and your moral goals independent of your corporate persona.”

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