Ingersoll, Freed, and their three Jack Russell terriers
Curt Freed and Robert Ingersoll say they're done pondering their options, done waiting for a response, and done reading blog comments.
Today the Eastern Washington couple is following through with a threat they made last week to a florist who cited her "relationship with Jesus" as reason to refuse service to their same-sex wedding. Freed and Ingersoll had given an ultimatum to Baronelle Stutzman, owner of Arlene's Flowers & Gifts, that said she could settle the issue by apologizing in the local newspaper, promising to never discriminate again, and paying $5,000 to an LGBT youth center (in lieu of attorney's fees). But Stutzman's deadline passed yesterday—and she'd said nothing—so they are suing her this morning in Benton County Superior Court.
Stutzman violated the Washington Law Against Discrimination, which prohibits businesses from denying goods or services on the basis of sexual orientation, and the Consumer Protection Act, says the suit, filed with the backing of cooperating lawyers at the ACLU of Washington. The couple is asking a judge to bar Stutzman from future acts of discrimination, paying for unspecified damages, and covering their attorney’s fees.
It’s not a decision they came to lightly.
I spoke to Freed and Ingersoll on the phone last night to discuss plans for a case that has already become national news and what is quickly becoming the country’s highest-profile clash between gay rights and religious liberty. (The case escalated after the State of Washington took the unusual step of filing a consumer protection lawsuit against Stutzman, as The Stranger first reported.)
“We’re on the sofa with three dogs, so if you hear someone moaning, it’s not us,” joked Freed on speaker phone. He explained that since Stutzman refused to sell flowers in early March, “We were asked questions about why we hadn’t done something sooner.”
“We did a lot of soul-searching through the process,” Freed continued. “It wasn’t arrived at without a lot of internal questions. When it comes down to it, we deeply feel that she has done to us is wrong, and we don’t want it to happen to other people." The couple explained that they volunteer for the Vista Youth Center, an LGBT community organization that helps at-risk kids, and they said thinking of those kids motivated them to file the lawsuit. As an established couple (Freed, 43, is a faculty member at Columbia Basin College, and Ingersoll, 42, is a manager at Goodwill), they felt securely positioned enough to take on a legal battle for all the people who couldn't. “Thinking about those kids who live a fragile life… something like this happening to them might question whether they should continue to live. We hate to think about a situation like this happening to them. If they have new fruitful love, they get engaged, and then have these doors close on them, it just seems really unfair.”
Naturally, Stutzman is the one who thinks this is a really unfair.
When asked for her reaction earlier this week, Stutzman told me she was feeling "peachy keen," but she deferred to her legal team for comments on the lawsuit.
Snohomish County lawyer JD Bristol is leading a dozen attorneys and six organizations to represent Stutzman (which may include the National Organization for Marriage and the Family Policy Institute of Washington). Reached Tuesday, Bristol said he plans to litigate against the state's lawsuit and is prepared to fight the couple in court, calling their settlement offer "extortion." Bristol insisted the flower shop "loves their gay customers," as proven by the fact that they served the couple before the wedding, and "now it's the homosexual groups forcing their values on others."
Bristol argued that his client was not discriminating against the couple's sexual orientation—rather, she was exercising her religious conscience by refusing to take part in an event, a gay wedding. If a Christian is legally required to make bouquets for a gay wedding, Bristol contended, "A Jewish web designer would have to design a website promoting jihad." Or in the case of events, Bristol asked, "Should an African American caterer be required to do that catering for a KKK event?"
Sarah Dunne, the legal director of the ACLU of Washington, dismissed that hypothetical analogy. "I would question whether the KKK would actually hire an African American," she said. Dunne also said that paying $5,000 toward the LGBT center isn't "extortion." In fact, paying attorney's fees to the lawyers at Hillis, Clark, Martin, and Petersen representing the couple could cost far more.
Most of all, though, the ACLU doesn't buy Stutzman's legal argument. Just because this is an event, florists don't possess some religious-liberty escape hatch.
"I find that specious," Dunne says. "It is a dubious distinction that doesn’t hold up under the law. She sells flowers. It would be a different story if she said she wouldn't sell wedding flowers to anyone. She instead is saying, 'I sell flowers for all different kinds of event, but for gay people I only sell flowers for birthdays, housewarmings, and ceremonies, but I wont sell flowers for same-sex weddings, but for straight people I will.'"
Freed also says Stutzman wouldn't "participate" in the wedding at all. "The flowers end up having very little to do with her," Freed fired back. "Because, in fact, we would have picked up the flowers and she wouldn't have seen the venue and probably wouldn't see us on the day of the wedding. We had no plans for her to walk one of us down the aisle, had no plans to invite her to the wedding. She chose not to sell them to us because we are gay and getting married."
The couple has been taking the backlash from both sides; conservatives have threatened a legal fight while progressives have said this is the wrong test case of discrimination laws. "We have been a little surprised to see that gays or liberals have been against what we are doing," Freed said, adding that "what we are doing may have a different meaning for them than why we are pursuing this. We don’t want this to happen to other people."
"Rob keeps telling me to stop reading the comments," Freed said.
Ingersoll jumped in: "I am going to take his computer away from him."