Columnist, AG debate core issues of Arlene’s Flowers court case

On July 3, columnist Rich Elfers wrote a column about Arlene’s Flowers, the 1st Amendment and equal rights. A few weeks later, Washington State Attorney General Bod Ferguson wrote in, challenging Elfers’ facts and characterizations.

Ray Miller-Still
                                Editor

Ray Miller-Still Editor

Does the freedom of speech, expression and religion given to American citizens outweigh the right to have equal protection under the law as a consumer? Or should the 14th Amendment take precedence over 1st Amendment beliefs, no matter how sincerely held? The Unites States Supreme Court has had two chances to answer these questions in recent months — the Masterpiece Bakery v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission and the Arlene’s Flowers Inc. v. Washington cases. However, the court either opted to rule more narrowly, or did not rule at all, and declined to answer the broader questions that came with each case.

The defendant in the Arlene’s Flowers case, Barronelle Stutzman, lost the suit when the state Supreme Court ruled Stutzman discriminated against a gay man when she refused to arrange flowers for his wedding because of her religious beliefs. Stutzman appealed to the Supreme Court, but the high court punted the case back to the state earlier this summer.

Columnist Rich Elfers wrote a column (“Expect WA court to reverse Arlene’s Flowers decision,” printed July 4) about the case.

Washington State Attorney General Bob Ferguson wrote a letter to The Courier-Herald on July 20, challenging some of Elfers’ facts and characterizations in his column.

Ferguson’s letter, as well as a response column by Elfers, are printed below. While unusual in its presentation, it is my opinion that the nuances of the Arlene’s Flowers case are best presented in simultaneous debating pieces, to give readers the best chance to form their own opinion on the matters at hand.

Both Ferguson and Elfers have included links in their pieces (as have I in this introduction), allowing readers to view source documents and other materials on their own. I highly encourage you to do so.

I also urge you to not only consider the information being presented, but also where that information came from. Stutzman’s legal team, the Alliance Defending Freedom, is a right-wing non-profit that the Southern Poverty Law Center designates a hate group for their public opinions and legal work against the LGBTQ community, though the group does not commit hate crimes. While it’s impossible to be completely impartial, especially regarding cases like Arlene’s Flowers, extreme bias should be met with extreme scrutiny when considering information from such sources.

This is not the first, nor will it be the last, time the 1st and 14th Amendments will battle in court. The Arlene’s Flowers case may be only a small facet of the authority behind America’s two most powerful amendments, but the decisions made in this case, and others like it, will shape our country for generations to come.

We can affect the outcome with our voices and our votes. But first, we must be well-informed — that’s our duty as Americans.

Read on, citizen, and learn.

Ray Miller-Still

Editor

COLUMNIST NEEDS TO CHECK HIS FACTS

Courier-Herald readers should know that Richard Elfers’ July 4 column about the Arlene’s Flowers case contains significant factual errors.

First, Mr. Elfers claims that my office sent a letter to Barronelle Stutzman, the owner of Arlene’s Flowers, “threatening not only the loss of her business, but also all the assets she possessed, if Stutzman did not agree to arrange wedding flowers for (Robert) Ingersoll and his partner, Curt Freed.”

Not true. The letter I sent to Mrs. Stutzman made no such threat.

My letter did offer Stutzman the opportunity to avoid legal action and any costs associated with it by simply agreeing to “not discriminate against consumers based on their sexual orientation in the future.” That agreement, the letter continued, would not be “an admission by you that you violated the law and it does not include monetary payments or attorneys’ fees.”

My letter to Mrs. Stutzman is a public record and anyone who requests it from my office is welcome to it (or by going online to www.scribd.com/document/385032379/Letter-from-AG-Bob-Ferguson-to-Baronelle-Stutzman).

Second, Mr. Elfers’ writes that we are seeking “up to $1 million in legal fees and penalties.” Not true, although, being fair to Mr. Elfers, he’s only wrong by $998,999, or 99.9 percent.

Mr. Elfers made no effort to check his facts. My office never heard from him, and many public documents are available that would have prevented the error.

After we won the case in Benton-Franklin Superior Court, my office only asked for a $2,000 penalty and a dollar in attorney’s costs and fees. Judge Ekstrom awarded the state a $1,000 penalty under the Consumer Protection Act — and the $1 in costs and fees the state requested.

As a person of faith, it is important to me that the state be firm in enforcing our anti-discrimination laws, but to do so respectfully. On June 10, the Seattle Times editorial Board wrote: “Ferguson has struck a tone that is remarkably evenhanded in his case against Arlene’s Flowers. In court filings, he called Stutzman’s religious views ‘sincerely held’ and weighed them carefully, even while concluding her beliefs did not allow her to deny services to others when running a business in the public marketplace.”

I will let the readers of the Enumclaw Courier-Herald decide whether Mr. Elfers’ errors are the result of a willful effort to deceive, or plain sloppiness.

Bob Ferguson

Washington State Attorney General

FERGUSON OVERSTEPPED HIS BOUNDS

Imagine you are a devout 68-year-old Southern Baptist Christian, living in Richland, Washington, the owner of Arlene’s Flowers, a floral shop, for over 20 years. The date is March 28, 2013. Your name is Barronelle Stutzman. You are aware that the state of Washington has passed a referendum legalizing gay marriage. Based upon your religious faith and your understanding of the Bible’s teachings, gay marriage is a sin. The Apostle Paul warned Christians in I Timothy 5:22: “Do not share in the sins of others. Keep yourself pure.” To you, arranging flowers for a gay marriage would be a violation of your most deeply held religious beliefs.

You recently turned down an old friend and customer, Rob Ingersoll, who had asked you to arrange flowers for his gay wedding. Over the past nine years he purchased $4,500 worth of flowers from you. During that time, you would greet each other with a hug when he entered the store. Rob is hurt by your refusal, but you explained to him about your convictions and how creating custom arrangements would violate your beliefs as a Christian. You suggested other florists who would be happy to serve him. As he left, you hugged again.

Two weeks later, you receive a letter from the Washington State Attorney General’s Office. Your pulse rises, and you begin to feel anxious as you read the letter. A State Assistant Attorney General writes: “You refused to sell floral arrangements to a same-sex couple for their wedding because of the couple’s sexual orientation.” A lump forms in your throat, and your stomach starts churning.

The letter has a legal attachment included that looks very intimidating, like something that could take you to court. Your heart beats faster as you are told that you need to agree to sign the Assurance of Discontinuance (AOD) and promise not to “discriminate against consumers based on their sexual orientation in the future” or you will face “civil penalties of up to $2000 per violation and attorneys’ fees and costs.”

How would you feel if you received such a document?

If you were Barronelle Stutzman and had received such a letter from the AG, you would realize that if you wanted to remain faithful to your Christian beliefs, you stood to lose everything you owned, including your business, your house, and your pension, due to unending legal bills. Such a constitutional issue might take years to be resolved. (See her video at www.adfmedia.org/News/PRDetail/8608 to hear her words on this issue. In my July 3 column, I paraphrased Stutzman saying Ferguson’s letter threatened “to take away my livelihood” and that penalties and legal costs “could be well over a million dollars.”)

You would likely feel your whole future and freedom to practice your deeply held religious convictions were now threatened. You would have to choose between your faith and obedience to the State. It might seem to you that the rights of one group of Americans, gay people, were now being put above others’ religious rights under the 1st Amendment. Your civil rights have been trampled upon to protect another group from discrimination. What irony!

Rich Elfers

Columnist

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