Small business rights could crumble under Washington AG’s lawsuit against Christian florist
Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson’s legal action against 70-year-old Christian florist Barronelle Stutzman could have far-reaching consequences for many small business owners and entrepreneurs—consequences that haven’t entered into the discussion yet.
Last month, a judge in Benton County, Wash. ruled in favor of Ferguson in his lawsuit against Stutzman, who refused to create floral arrangements for the gay wedding of Robert Ingersoll and Curt Freed because of her Christian beliefs.
Ferguson said that Stutzman’s refusal to create floral arrangements for a gay wedding violated the state’s Consumer Protection Act, which states, “Unfair methods of competition and unfair or deceptive acts or practices in the conduct of any trade or commerce are hereby declared unlawful.”
Ferguson also referenced Washington’s Civil Rights Act, which has been amended to include discrimination against sexual orientation, among many other things.
The Civil Rights Act says that discrimination includes, but is not limited to: denial of employment, discrimination in real estate transactions, credit, insurance, or HMO services, and denial of the right to use public accommodations and amusements. It forbids discriminatory blacklists and boycotts.
The law says nothing about flowers.
Stutzman’s Arlene’s Flowers is one of several florist shops in Benton County. Stutzman, who has been running her flower shop for 40 years, states that the couple, who had been long-time customers, initially asked her to recommend other local florists, after she turned down their wedding. She complied with their request and recommended three other floral shops.
Ingersoll and Freed are now following Ferguson’s lead, suing Stutzman for refusing to create floral art for their wedding, even after first asking for her recommendations.
Their attorney told Stutzman, “Your refusal to sell flowers to Mr. Ingersoll and Mr. Freed has hurt them very deeply.” They are represented by the American Civil Liberties Union.
Will these lawsuits, coupled with the broad language of Washington’s Consumer Protection Act and Civil Rights Act, start an avalanche of lawsuits against risk-takers who had the ambition to create a business using their own personality and talent—but who refuse to dismiss their own personal judgment and beliefs?
As he wields the power of his office, Ferguson’s lawsuit shows his dangerous ignorance of standard business practices for those who provide personal services.
Unlike retail businesses, it is standard practice for many service providers to have a potential client go through a series of interviews and submit documents before a decision is made to accept the client’s business. Small business owners need to be especially cautious and diligent throughout this process, and the decisions are often determined by evaluating “red flags,” based on the entrepreneur’s own judgment and experiences.
A poorly chosen client can have a devastating impact on a small business. Businesses that provide wedding services, for example, tend to be especially stringent during this review process, because wedding jitters can quickly turn molehills into mountains.
Could the outcome of this lawsuit turn this established business process into an illegal act? Will business owners be forced to risk their livelihood every time a decision hurts someone’s feelings?
Many consumers cherish the personal touch of a small local business, and are happy to pay for the unique talent of someone like florist Barronelle Stutzman—just like Ingersoll and Freed had been. They estimated that they had spent thousands of dollars at Stutzman’s business over the years.
If Stutzman had been a crummy florist, she wouldn’t be in the mess she’s in today.
The Atlantic’s Conor Friedersdorf ridiculed the meaning behind the work of artisans like Stutzman:
This whole debate strikes me as faintly absurd. Since when does supplying a cake or flowers to an event signify one’s endorsement of its contents? (I’d happily bake a cake for the NSA holiday party next year if the gig pays enough.)
Yet many creative producers like Stutzman believe that they aren’t just cranking out widgets for a faceless economy.
Do these business owners have the right to believe that their work gives meaning to their lives, according to Ferguson’s interpretation of the law? Do their feelings count too, as Ingersoll’s and Freed’s feelings clearly do? Even when elitists like Friedersdorf scoff at the idea—does a baker or florist have the right to believe that they put a little piece of their soul into everything they create?
Stutzman’s Bible contains Ecclesiastes 5:19, which says that rejoicing in your work, and finding meaning in your work, is a gift from God. Unlike Friedersdorf, Stutzman’s Bible doesn’t specify the type of work necessary to meet the criteria.
Does Ferguson’s opinion supersede Stutzman’s freedom to believe that her work is meaningful, and an expression of her faith? Does Stutzman still have a First Amendment right to follow the dictates of her faith, which includes finding her work to be meaningful?
An organization called the Alliance Defending Freedom recently filed a notice of appeal to the Washington state Supreme Court on behalf of Stutzman and her shop for the “personal and professional ruin” caused by Ferguson’s action. Stutzman is now faced with a fine of $1,001 by the state, in addition to the costs that will come from her customers’ lawsuit. A judge ruled that her assets, such as her business, bank accounts, home, and personal possessions, could be subject to seizure.
If both the Ferguson and the Ingersoll/Freed lawsuits against a small town business owner like Stutzman are successful, then the door may be open for anyone whose “feelings have been deeply hurt” to undermine the fabric of our market economy.
This article was written by a contributor of Watchdog Arena, Franklin Center’s network of writers, bloggers, and citizen journalists.