Newlyweds sued for the price of driving to another florist

By Sandra Sobieraj Westfall
Updated February 19, 2015 01:55 PM
Credit: Julie Saraceno/Missy Moo Studio/AP

When Robert Ingersoll’s longtime florist held his hands and told him “because of my relationship with Jesus Christ” she would not arrange flowers for his September 2013 wedding to Curt Freed, the newlyweds sued – for a whopping $7.91, the cost of driving to another florist.

And this week, the Kennewick, Washington, couple won back more than their gas money in what was being heralded as a moral victory for LGBT equality.

In a decision issued late Wednesday, Benton County Superior Court Judge Alex Ekstrom rejected florist Barronelle Stutzman’s claim that her refusal of service was protected by her First-Amendment freedoms of speech and religion.

“Religious motivation does not excuse compliance” with Washington’s anti-discrimination and consumer-protection laws, Ekstrom wrote. “No Court has ever held that religiously motivated conduct, expressive or otherwise, trumps state discrimination law in public accommodations.”

Stutzman, the owner of Arlene’s Flowers in Richland, Washington, where Ingersoll had frequently bought bouquets for Freed after meeting the college faculty member in 2004, had said in her deposition that when Ingersoll asked for wedding flowers, “I just put my hands on his and told him because of my relationship with Jesus Christ I couldn’t do that.”

In a statement on the ruling, Ingersoll, a manager for Goodwill, and Freed, a faculty member at Columbia Basin College, said: “We were hurt and saddened when we were denied service by Arlene’s Flowers after doing business with them for so many years. We respect everyone’s beliefs, but businesses that are open to the public have an obligation to serve everyone.”

The American Civil Liberties Union, which represented the couple, said the ruling strikes a blow against discrimination based on sexual orientation.

“Religious beliefs do not give any of us a right to ignore the law or to harm others because of who they are,” said Sarah Dunne, ACLU of Washington Legal Director. “When gay people go to a business, they should be treated like anyone else.”