Responding to the Attorney General

Last week we wrote you about the fact that Attorney General Bob Ferguson is not only suing Arlene’s Flowers because of her decision not to decorate for a same-sex “wedding”, but is going after her personal assets as well.  We are encouraging you to contact Bob Ferguson’s office and also go to the Benton County Superior Courthouse this Friday, December 19th, to show your support for Barronelle Stutzman and conscience rights.

For those of you who did, you likely got a form letter response.  Several people asked how to respond, so below I have made some comments that I hope will help you continue the dialogue with the Attorney General:


Dear Concerned Washington Citizen,

Thank you for your message to Attorney General Bob Ferguson expressing your thoughts about the civil lawsuit our office filed against Arlene’s Flowers for violating the Washington State Consumer Protection Act.  I’ve been asked to respond on his behalf.

The Attorney General must enforce the laws of the state of Washington. Since 1973, the Consumer Protection Act has prohibited all businesses and business owners – regardless of personal religious beliefs –  from discriminating against their customers. In 2006, the Legislature amended the law to include protections against discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. If a business provides wedding flowers to opposite-sex couples, then it must provide wedding flowers to same-sex couples.

It is true that the Attorney General must enforce the laws of the state of Washington.  It is also true that a law was passed in 2006 which includes protections on the basis of sexual orientation.  The idea that a business must provide flowers to same-sex weddings is simply his opinion.  Arlene’s Flowers has served the gay couple involved in this case and has even employed gay people in the past.  This was not an issue of a business that discriminated against a class of people but instead a decision not to be part of a particular event that was inconsistent with the values of the business. She has, would, and continues to do business with people who identify as gay.  

The Attorney General’s Office first asked Ms. Stutzman, the owner of Arlene’s Flowers, to comply with state law by sending her a letter informing her of the law and asking her to formally agree to no longer discriminate against same-sex couples. Had she signed that agreement, she would not have been subject to any costs or fees. Instead, her lawyer sent us a letter stating Ms. Stutzman would fight any efforts to comply with the long-standing state law.  At that point, we filed a suit asking the court to order Ms. Stutzman to follow the law.

It is true that the Attorney General’s office sent a demand letter telling her to surrender her conscience rights and make a contribution to an organization that she did not philosophically support in order to avoid being sued. But like the lawsuit itself, that was also an act of harassment, bullying, and intimidation unbecoming of a public servant. 

The Attorney General’s position is in direct conflict with Section 11 of the Washington State constitution which guarantees “Absolute freedom of conscience in all matters of religious sentiment, belief and worship, shall be guaranteed to every individual, and no on shall be molested or disturbed in person or property on account of religion;”   Contrary to the Attorney General’s position, the legislature does not have the authority to repeal sections of the State Constitution that do not comport with their desire to bully the world into being “more tolerant”.

Attorney General Ferguson respects people’s religious beliefs and personal opinions. As an individual, Ms. Stutzman has the right to religious freedom and expression of her beliefs.  However, as a business owner she must follow Washington state law which prohibits discrimination in the marketplace on the basis of sexual orientation-regardless of personal viewpoints.

Either Bob Ferguson is simply being dishonest about respecting religious freedom or he has redefined what religious freedom means. Religious freedom is more than simply the right to have beliefs inside your head.  It includes the right to make decisions in the real world on the basis of those beliefs.  His apparent understanding of religious freedom means that we are free to have our own thoughts as long as we only express them in church or our home. That is the opposite of religious freedom.

Businesses may reserve the right to require shoes or shirts. Similarly, they may refuse to serve someone who is drunk or disorderly. Under Washington state law, however, businesses may not discriminate on the basis of “race, creed, color, national origin, sex, honorably discharged veteran or military status, sexual orientation, or disability.”  There is no right to discrimination that a business can reserve.

Again, Arlene’s Flowers did not and does not discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation.  They have demonstrated repeatedly that they are happy to serve people in same-sex relationships.  However, there are some events they are not comfortable being part of.  That should be anyone’s right.

Regardless, the letter implies that there is a right to be free from discrimination. While the sentiment is nice, not even Bob Ferguson really believes that.  After all, he allows people to discriminate against the shoeless and shirtless.  

His position is that the non-discrimination statute passed in 2006, repealed the Constitutional rights to the free exercise of religion, association, and the freedom of speech, which includes the right not to speak, if that is your preference.

That is beyond the legislature’s authority.

In this case, the Attorney General is saying that as a condition of being a flower shop that provides flowers for any kind of wedding, he can force you violate your religious beliefs, associate with activities you’d prefer not to associate with, and communicate messages through your work that violate your beliefs.

I hope this information is helpful in explaining why this office filed suit against Ms. Stutzman and Arlene’s Flowers.

This information is helpful is explaining how the Attorney General believes the non-discrimination law from 2006 repealed a host of state and federal Constitutional rights.  But it does not justify his harassment of grandmothers who own small businesses.

 

Ellen M. Austin Hall
Office of Washington State Attorney General Bob Ferguson
800 Fifth Avenue, Suite 2000, Seattle, WA 98104


I hope this helps you work through this letter and maybe even inspires further dialogue with the Attorney General’s office.  Please be persistent.  Be respectful, but be persistent.

Don’t expect to change his mind soon because this lawsuit is about politics.  Deep down, the Attorney General probably even knows he’s being a bully.  Surely there are people in his family who share Barronelle Stutzman’s beliefs that he knows should not lose their home or business because of their beliefs.

But he hopes to be Governor one day and he has political interests he needs to please in order to make that happen. This is the path he has chosen.

For that reason, it is unlikely that he will be persuaded by arguments. But we should stand up for Barronelle because it is the right thing to do.

The permanent solution to this is a critical mass of people rising up to say, “Enough!”.  The legislature could put a stop to this through legislation clarifying that the non-discrimination law does not enable harassment like this.  But they won’t unless good policy also becomes good politics.

Demand better behavior from those we elect.  Remember, silence is consent.

Call the Attorney General at 360-753-6200 and email your legislators and encourage them to protect conscience rights and religious freedom.

18 replies
  1. Saint John the Baptist
    Saint John the Baptist says:

    Oshtur: Wrong again! The customers in this case have NO religious preferences! Catch a clue; there are PLENTY of other florists they could have chosen. I certainly hope you are not a U.S. citizen because your lack of understanding concerning individual religious rights is depressing. Your desire towards an all powerful government that can force a citizen to violate their religious beliefs is frightening. And don’t claim the government is not using force; a lawsuit with the backing of the state is behind the court case.

    Reply
  2. Saint John the Baptist
    Saint John the Baptist says:

    Oshtur: Wrong, wrong, wrong. The GOVERNMENT needs to ‘avoid all this’ by focusing on individual religious RIGHTS. NO ONE CAN BE FORCED BY THE GOVERNMENT TO VIOLATE THEIR RELIGIOUS BELIEFS. Got that? By the way, RIGHTS TRUMP LAWS.

    Reply
    • Oshtur
      Oshtur says:

      Right, focus on the customer’s religious rights. They can’t be subjected to a religious litmus test to do business with a business. The Washington state constitution says such acts of licentiousness are not permitted.

      Reply
  3. Oshtur Vishanti
    Oshtur Vishanti says:

    Joseph, your understanding of the law involving public accommodations is lacking. It is still a violation of ANY service by a business is restricted because of a protected class, not doing the flowers for people who are having a same sex wedding is just as much a violation of law as the classic example of a diner saying they will serve blacks just not at the lunch counter.

    And the Washington state law specifically says “but the liberty of conscience hereby secured shall not be so construed as to excuse acts of licentiousness or justify practices inconsistent with the peace and safety of the state.” And ‘licentiousness’ is is19th century legal parlance for ‘doing as one wills without regard for the rights of others’, which is exactly what Arlene’s Flowers is doing. The Washington state constitution specifically says you can’t use the excuse ‘religious conscience’ to break the law when it involves other people’s rights – in this case the right to have their own beliefs about marriage and sexual orientation too.

    No laws or ‘constitutions’ are being ‘repealed’, the Attorney General is spot on right and consistent with federal and state laws and constitutions. There is a right to religious freedom, not religious discrimination. When a business advertises to the public they know full well that people who may not share their beliefs about all things religious are being invited to be their customers, they can’t then whip out a religious test the customer must pass to get access to those services or products.

    The excuse ‘religious conscience’ is specifically excluded from being an excuse for ignoring the legal rights of other citizens in our state constitution. I feel sorry for Ms Stutzman as she has probably just gotten horrible legal advice from people trying to use her as poster child for their cause, but she could have avoided all of this.

    Reply
    • john robel
      john robel says:

      What part of “WE RESERVE THE RIGHT TO REFUSE SERVISE TO ANYONE” don’t you understand? These people should respect others rights/beliefs and find a homosexual flower shop. Should an atheist be mandated to pray? This ain’t about being homosexual, this is about being in you face like it or not. Try it with me and see what happens.

      Reply
      • Oshtur
        Oshtur says:

        John, that reply makes no sense. There is no right to refuse service to anyone for any reason. There is no right for a business to require customers to pass a religious test before they can get service or buy product.

        And like it or not being gay and believing that couples of all sex combinations can marry is perfectly legal. What would happen if I ‘tried it with you’? You’d do what exactly other than what this business did – break the law?

        Reply
  4. Marilyn Young
    Marilyn Young says:

    My recollection of the incident as reported in the Tri-City Herald at the time was that one of the homosexual couple (who had done business with Arlene’s Flowers in the past) came into the shop to order the wedding flowers. Ms. Stutzman was not there at the time. An employee took the order. The man asked that Ms. Stutzman personally do the arrangements. Later when the man came back, Ms. Stutzman told him that she could not personally do the arranging because of her religious beliefs. The man was upset and canceled the order. It was my understanding that Arlenes Flowers – the business – never refused to provide the flowers for the wedding – that someone else would have done the arranging – just not Ms. Stutzman. Maybe I’m wrong, but that’s how I remember what was in the paper. Seems to me that if that is the case, the Attorney General has no case.

    Reply
    • Oshtur Vishanti
      Oshtur Vishanti says:

      Marilyn, you are correct if this is just an issue of a particular individual refusing to do the floral arrangements personally there is no case – it is the business that has the obligation to not discriminate due to belief or sexual orientation, not any particular person at the business.

      But if this was the case and Arlene’s Flower is completely willing to do weddings for same sex couples then is surprising the owner didn’t just promise that when the Attorney General sent the first letter.

      Unfortunately the Tri City Herald archives don’t seem to go back to the very first article about this and none of the letters written about it seem to mention it that I can find, nor anyone on either side mentioning this as you remember.

      Reply
      • Oshtur Vishanti
        Oshtur Vishanti says:

        Just a followup, I was able to find the original article in the Tri City Herald and it is not as you remember. Ms Stutzman specifically says she didn’t even let the customer get through their announcement they were being married before she announced she would discriminate. And an employee walked out of their job there because the business wouldn’t do the wedding.

        Reply
  5. Anne Wilson
    Anne Wilson says:

    If that same gay couple came in and requested flowers for a Klu Klux Klan rally would she also be forced to comply? Or would she be allowed to say I can’t participate in this rally through my decorations because I don’t support what you are doing!

    Reply
  6. Jordan
    Jordan says:

    I’m a Christian and a web developer. I would build a website for a gay person, but I would not build a website that has a pro-gay purpose.
    That right there is the difference that needs to be understood and it doesn’t always have religious implications either (Should a camera shop owner be forced to sell cameras that will be used for pornography? Should a vegan gun store owner be forced to sell guns that will be used for hunting? A banker forced to lend money to Planned Parenthood?). That’s just basic freedom, and as wild as it sounds it’s at risk.

    Fast-forward 20 years.
    Will the Attorney General be filing a discrimination lawsuit again when Arlene’s Flowers denies wedding services for an incestual marriage? Of course.
    Will the same diversionary rhetoric be used to confuse people into believing that somehow Arlene’s is being mean? Of course!
    Will the law protect her? Only if we get this fixed now! Once our liberties are gone they will be impossible to get back.

    Reply
  7. Kenny Claing
    Kenny Claing says:

    I have the argument to win this case, if you are interested. It is really simple, only oblivious. Replies to this is usually, useless. They never reply.

    Reply
  8. Philip Irvin
    Philip Irvin says:

    The Washington State Constitution guarantees, “Absolute freedom of conscience.” It would be awfully nice if our beloved attorney general would explain what this protection prohibits the state from doing.

    Reply
    • Oshtur Vishanti
      Oshtur Vishanti says:

      Philip, the constitution also says there are limits on that liberty of conscience in the very next line:

      “…but the liberty of conscience hereby secured shall not be so construed as to excuse acts of licentiousness or justify practices inconsistent with the peace and safety of the state.”

      ‘Licentiousness’ is19th century legal parlance for ‘doing as one wills without regard for the rights of others’, which is exactly what Arlene’s Flowers is doing in ignoring both the religious right of the customers to not share anyone at the business’s beliefs and that the business must provide equal service regardless of sexual orientation.

      Sorry, there is no right to religious discrimination by a public accommodation in Washington state and that is the core issue. The state and federal statutes clearly spell out how a business can NOT operate as a public accommodation, Arlene’s Flowers could have easily done that in the past, could have promised to obey the law and reincorporated as business exempt from public accommodation laws after that.

      Reply
      • remember alamo
        remember alamo says:

        Licentiousness
        1
        : lacking legal or moral restraints; especially : disregarding sexual restraints
        2
        : marked by disregard for strict rules of correctness
        Wow! misinterpreting the definition. It seems Licentiousness has more to do with sexual behavior than business.

        Reply
          • remember alamo
            remember alamo says:

            Related to LICENTIOUS

            Synonyms
            concupiscent, goatish, horny, hot, hypersexual, itchy, lascivious, lecherous, lewd, libidinous, lustful, lubricious (or lubricous), oversexed, passionate, randy, salacious, satyric, wanton

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