State Attorney General Bob Ferguson on Tuesday filed a consumer protection lawsuit against Arlene’s Flowers & Gifts, a Richland florist that refused to supply flowers to the same-sex marriage of a longtime customer. Ferguson said he sent a March 28 letter to owner Barronelle Stutzman asking her to reconsider and supply flowers to customer Robert Ingersoll. Through an attorney, Stutzman declined to change her position. “As Attorney General, it is my job to enforce the laws of the state of Washington,” said Ferguson. “Under the Consumer Protection Act, it is unlawful to discriminate against customers based on sexual orientation. If a business provides a product or service to opposite-sex couples for their weddings, then it must provide same sex couples the same product or service.” The lawsuit by Ferguson is bound to revive a warning raised by opponents of marriage equality in last fall’s Washington Voter’s Pamphlet statement against Referendum 74. Foes stated: “People who disagree with this new definition (of marriage) could find themselves facing sanctions, as has occurred elsewhere. Church groups have lost their tax exemptions. Small businesses were sued. Wedding professionals have been fined.” The supporters of same-sex marriage, in their rebuttal, stated: “Lawsuits haven’t increased in states with same-sex marriage. Liberty and pursuit of happiness are core American values.” An employee at Arlene’s Flowers and Gifts said late Tuesday that Stutzman was not present, adding: “None of us will have any comment.” Last month, Stutzman told KEPR-TV in the Tri-Cities: “He (Ingersoll) said he decided to get married and before he got through 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.” Ingersoll and his partner, Curt Freed, were decade-long customers of Arlene’s Flowers & Gifts. They went online with the refusal and the story went viral. Stutzman refused to change her position, saying: “It’s a personal conviction. It’s not a matter of being right or wrong. It’s my belief.” The AG’s office has filed a complaint in Benton County Superior Court asking for a permanent injunction requiring Arlene’s Flowers & Gifts to comply with provisions of the Consumer Protection Act. It is asking that a $2,000 fine be imposed for every violation. But Stutzman’s attorneys warned the AG that any legal action Ferguson takes would result in “an immediate challenge in federal court,” and indicated that “a number of national non-profit organizations . . . are ready for a fight.” Benton County rejected Referendum 74 by a 50,000-29,000 vote margin in the November election. Only one place in Eastern Washington, Whitman County, voted in favor of marriage equality. The measure passed statewide thanks to heavy support in populous King County.
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