Robert Ingersoll and Curt Freed of Kennewick just wanted the best possible florist for their upcoming wedding.
But their go-to pick, Barronelle Stutzman of Arlene’s Flowers, told them her “relationship with Jesus Christ” wouldn’t let her participate in a gay wedding. That decision had consequences.
As the story of her refusal spread in early March, Arlene’s Flowers found itself flooded with Facebook comments and phone calls, both critical and supportive. The Tri-City Herald’s story was quickly joined by pieces in the Huffington Post, Advocate.com and other national outlets. One of Stutzman’s employees took her own moral stand and resigned.
Attorney General Bob Ferguson sent a letter to Stutzman, warning her to reconsider. In 2006, Washington state had added sexual orientation to its anti-discrimination law. But Stutzman didn’t budge, and last Tuesday Ferguson filed a lawsuit, accusing Arlene’s Flowers of discrimination. Ingersoll and Freed threatened a lawsuit of their own.
“If you don’t like gay marriage, don’t get gay married,” gay-marriage supporters declared during the Referendum 74 debate last year. But for wedding vendors — photographers, caterers, florists, bakers, event venue owners — opposed to gay marriage, it’s not that simple. If they turn down gay marriages, or even commitment ceremonies, they don’t just lose business or invite public controversy. They risk lawsuits. In New Mexico, for example, a photo studio that refused to shoot a commitment ceremony between a lesbian couple was fined nearly $7,000.
Still, a few vendors in Spokane said that despite the law, they would make the same choice Stutzman made.
“I absolutely won’t participate in one, but I’m doing my best to stay under the radar, if possible. I don’t want to invite any lawsuits,” one local photographer writes in a Facebook message. For that reason, he doesn’t want his name used.
Not every gay-marriage opponent refuses to participate in gay weddings. As Spokane resident Marnie Schroer prepares for her upcoming wedding to another woman, she says one vendor told her he was opposed to gay marriage but was still willing to work with her professionally.
“If you are a professional in a service industry… you end up working with a lot of clients whose political opinions you disagree with,” she says. If you have to approve of every client, she says, you can end up “approving yourself out a job.”
Others see more than a risky business decision — they see bigotry. In a blog titled “Yes, Liberals, We Should Sue That Anti-Gay Florist,” The Stranger’s Dominic Holden compares the florist’s refusal to how Christians once “tried to use the Bible to bar women from voting booths and mixed-race couples from wedding chapels.”
While ministers in Washington state are allowed to refuse to wed same-sex couples — or any couple — other wedding vendors in their congregation don’t have that luxury.
Russ Davis, pastor at New Community, doesn’t say whether he would perform a wedding ceremony for a same-sex couple. But he says he would encourage any vendor “to treat the [gay] couple like they’d treat any other couple.”
In other areas of the country, religious wedding vendors face the opposite moral dilemma. Photographer Mike Wootton just moved to Spokane from Nashville, Tenn. “If I was to accept a gay-marriage job offer down there, that could ruin my company,” Wootton says. But as a religious man, he hopes he would have the moral fortitude to photograph a commitment ceremony if asked.
“I absolutely believe that relationships are relationships,” Wootton says. “It’s up to God to make judgments.”