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.
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.
Charles C. Haynes is director of the Religious Freedom Education Project at the Newseum, 555 Pennsylvania Ave., N.W., Washington, D.C., 20001. Web: firstamendmentcenter.org. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.