By now you’ve heard about the latest development in the legal dispute between a gay couple and a Washington florist:
In a victory for gay rights advocates, Washington’s Supreme Court on Thursday ruled against a Christian florist who was fined by the state for refusing to provide flowers for a same-sex wedding.
The justices agreed with a lower court that Barronnelle Stutzman, owner of Arlene’s Flowers in Richland, Wash., violated a state civil rights law that bars discrimination in public businesses on the basis of sexual orientation. The court also ruled that the law does not infringe on her free speech.
To be clear, I’m not a lawyer. For all I know, the problem here may be a bad law, not a bad state supreme court ruling. But the court overstepped in deciding that the florist’s First Amendment claim is invalid.
I’m pretty sick of this case. There are differing interpretations of the facts, and the facts themselves are pretty unfortunate and/or suspect. Before it became a fundraising bonanza for pro- and anti-gay legal defense groups, it was a national story that started because of a Facebook post. In short, this is not how to have a civil discussion about the nature of marriage or the rights of conscience.
The Washington florist told a longtime customer she would not arrange flowers for his wedding “because of her relationship with Jesus Christ.” This is not a great thing to say. Evidently she would be willing to sell her accuser, Mr. Ingersoll, prearranged flowers for his same-sex wedding. But she maintains that the act of arranging flowers designed to celebrate a union her conscience will not allow her to celebrate.
I bet if she had it to do over, she would have dealt with her longtime customer differently — perhaps by telling him she would be happy to sell prearranged flowers, by working out some agreement whereby another designer made the arrangements, or by helping him find a different florist. I wish she had not thrown down Jesus Christ as the trump card that exempts her from serving her longtime customer and neighbor. There is a difference between saying “I would prefer not to use my artistic gifts in service of your wedding because I believe marriage is a man and a woman” and saying, “I can’t do it because of my relationship with Jesus Christ.”
Of course, Ingersoll was stung by the comment. But in my judgment, his claims of emotional distress are vastly out of proportion to what was warranted. The legal filings talk about sleepless nights and postponing the wedding out of fear that he would be refused and humiliated at other flower shops (which I highly doubt would have happened). In fact, plenty of social conservatives believe that wedding vendors should serve all comers. The issue in the Washington case is whether the state can compel an individual against her conscience.
Let me share a personal analogy. I’ve written about it before in support of religious freedom protections for wedding vendors.
When my bride-to-be and I reserved flowers, cakes, catering, and photography for our wedding, I could have been refused service. My first marriage ended in divorce, and I suppose a Roman Catholic wedding vendor might have told me he would prefer not to serve me because he believes very strongly that my impending marriage was no marriage at all, but rather an adulterous relationship.
I would’ve found another vendor. I would not have sued the guy out of business.
Stutzman now plans to appeal the decision to the Supreme Court.
The plain truth is that the Washington religious liberty case is going to be resolved in favor of the proprietor of the business, as it should be.
We need to be as deferential as we can to the rights of conscience, especially as they pertain to small/family businesses. I wouldn’t want the state to harshly fine me if I declined to arrange flowers for the Westboro Baptist Church’s annual banquet.
Progressives are fighting a losing battle, and the optics of financially ruining a 72-year-old grandmother are terrible. If progressives are on the right side of history and we are just moments away from same sex unions being celebrated as marriages by virtually everyone of every faith, then find another florist and leave this poor lady alone.
And if the Washington florist must be made to fall in line, try engaging her one-on-one, not in a circus legal drama that makes the state, the Left, and gay people look like vengeful bullies.