Florist challenges demand to provide flowers for same-sex wedding

A tempest in a flowerpot over whether a Washington state florist should have to provide bouquets to a same-sex wedding has taken a new turn with a countersuit filed by the shop owner claiming her religious freedoms gave her the right to refuse.

In an action filed late last week, the owner of Arlene's Flowers fought back against earlier suits filed by the Washington attorney general and the American Civil Liberties Union, saying in a new counterclaim that she for years has served the gay man at the center of the legal maelstrom as a customer but doesn't have to provide flowers for his wedding.

The owner, Barronelle Stutzman, 68, routinely designs floral arrangements for gay and lesbian clients, has hired openly gay employees, but draws the line at providing flowers for same-sex weddings because of her religious convictions, said the suit filed on her behalf by a group that opposes same-sex marriage, the Alliance Defending Freedom.

Because of her "Christian faith," it says, "she cannot as a matter of conscience participate in or facilitate a same-sex wedding," and trying to force her to do so violates the state Constitution's protections for freedom of "conscience" in religious expression.

The suit also claims a violation of the 1st Amendment protections for freedom of speech and freedom of association.

"Everyone knows that plenty of florists are willing to assist in same-sex ceremonies, so the state has no reason to force Barronelle to violate her deeply held beliefs," senior legal counsel Dale Schowengerdt of the alliance said in a statement.

Washington Atty. Gen. Bob Ferguson in April filed a consumer protection lawsuit against the Richland, Wash.-based florist shop, seeking fines against the business for failing to provide the same kind of services to a same-sex couple that it provides to everyone else.

"As an individual, she is free to hold religious beliefs, but as a business owner, she may not violate our state’s laws against discrimination — no matter what she personally believes," Ferguson said in a statement in response to the new countersuit.

The ACLU filed a similar lawsuit, alleging violation of the state's anti-discrimination laws.

In a statement on the union's website, the couple involved, Robert Ingersoll and Curt Freed, said they were "saddened" when the flower shop refused to serve their wedding.

"We respect others' religious values, but being discriminated against was hurtful and illegal," they said.

Several Republican lawmakers have introduced a bill in the state Legislature that would specifically allow persons or businesses to deny services to customers if to do otherwise would go against "sincerely held religious beliefs" or "matters of conscience."

The state would be allowed to intervene only if it had a "compelling governmental interest."

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