Richland flower shop turns away gay couple

Robert Ingersoll and his partner, Curt Freed, of Kennewick are planning their September wedding as a small, tasteful affair for close friends and family.

“We’re private people — low key,” Ingersoll told the Herald. “It’s going to be very easy and casual. … A white-linen-shirts-and-khaki-pants kind of event.”

It seemed natural to the couple as they made plans that they’d use Arlene’s Flowers in Richland as their florist. After all, they’ve bought flowers there during their entire nine-year romance.

But they were disappointed Friday that Barronelle Stutzman, the flower shop’s owner, turned them away because of her religious beliefs.

“Rob came into the store and was talking about getting married. I told him because of my relationship with Jesus Christ that I couldn’t do his wedding,” she said.

Ingersoll and Stutzman talked a bit more and parted respectfully, but the rejection gnawed at Ingersoll.

“It really hurt because it was somebody I knew,” he said. “We laid awake all night Saturday. It was eating at our souls. There was never a question she’d be the one to do our flowers. She does amazing work.”

Ingersoll and Freed each ended up writing Facebook posts about their disappointment — and that’s when everything blew up. The attention put both Ingersoll and Stutzman at the center of a whirlwind — with people on both sides expressing strong opinions about what happened.

By Tuesday, hundreds of comments had been written on the Lee Boulevard florist’s Facebook page. Many were supportive, but many also were critical, with commenters vowing never to spend money there again.

And many pointed out that Stutzman’s refusal to provide flowers for a same-sex marriage may be against Washington law.

Same-sex marriage became legal in Washington in December after a majority of voters approved Referendum 74 in the November general election. A majority of voters in the Mid-Columbia rejected it. In Benton County, 63 percent voted against it and in Franklin County 69 percent rejected it.

The referendum affirmed a law passed by the Legislature in February 2012 that removed the last barriers in state law toward gay couples getting married — and having all of the legal rights that come with marriage.

The law exempts religious organizations from having to perform same-sex weddings, but doesn’t allow the same exemptions for businesses.

A spokeswoman for the state Attorney General’s Office told the Herald that Washington law doesn’t allow discrimination based on sexual orientation as long as the same service is provided to a straight couple.

“Washington’s anti-discrimination law would not allow the florist to discriminate against the same-sex couple,” the office said in a statement. “If they sell wedding flowers to any other opposite sex couple, they must sell flowers to a same-sex couple.”

Stutzman said her personal belief is that a marriage is between a man and a woman, and she believes she should be able to choose whether she wants to participate in a wedding between two men.

“It’s not my intent to enforce (my belief) on anyone else,” she said. “I’m not against gays. If they want to believe they should be married, that’s certainly their conviction and belief. I’m not to judge them on that, and they shouldn’t judge me.”

She added that her refusal to be the florist for Ingersoll and Freed’s wedding wasn’t personal.

“I have dealt with Rob several times. He’s a nice guy,” she said.

But for Ingersoll, the rejection stung.

“We’re both passionate about seeing people succeed and that nobody should be hurt or in pain,” he said. “This is one of those things — it’s very hurtful. I probably haven’t felt this much pain since I was in high school and people called me names, and I’m 42.”

He said when he made the Facebook post, he didn’t expect it to get so much attention.

“I’m not a crusader. I’m not an activist. I’m not someone who wants to be in the limelight but it’s kind of pushed (me) there,” he said.

Ingersoll realizes that while much of the attention has been supportive, he and his partner also will face a backlash.

“People are going to hate us,” he said. “That is sad and makes me unhappy. I know people are going to come out of the woodwork and going to be hateful. I don’t say hateful things. I’m not that kind of person.”

Stutzman said there were negative comments on the Facebook site, but that the customers who visited the flower shop or called on Tuesday were supportive.

“Today has been awesome,” she said. “The Facebook page was pretty raw, but more positive comments have been coming today. Everybody certainly is entitled to their opinion. … I feel really bad that people are so hateful about it. It’s really sad to see the anger in the comments come out. That’s too bad that if you have an opinion, that’s what happens.”