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Posted on Mar 15, 2017 in Opinion

Column: Question left to be answered: Where’s the harm?

Barronelle Stutzman’s “relationship with Jesus Christ” doesn’t give her the freedom to turn down business – even if that business violates her personal beliefs. Or so said a Benton County superior court judge in his decision against her in 2013.
On Feb. 7 of this year, the Washington state Supreme Court upheld that ruling with a unanimous decision against the 72-year-old grandmother and Richland florist. Stutzman’s argument did not hold up, that as a devout Baptist Christian, she could not in good conscience arrange flowers for a gay wedding. She gave Robert Ingersoll, the customer, a list of other florists, two of which offered to do the flower arrangements for free.
Ironically, before the lawsuit, Stutzman had a warm nine-year relationship with Ingersoll, greeting him with a hug each time he came into the store. Over the years she sold him $4,500 worth of flowers. Stutzman had hired gays to work in her store.
The relationship between Stutzman and Ingersoll changed two months after Washington passed its gay marriage law in 2013. Ingersoll wanted Stutzman to arrange flowers for his marriage to his partner. In a 5-minute conversation, she refused on religious grounds.
Upon hearing of this incident, Bob Ferguson, Washington State’s attorney general, decided to not only sue her business, Arlene’s Flowers, for breaking Washington’s voter-approved gay marriage law, but also to bully her into compliance by suing her personally. That meant that if she lost, she would lose her retirement, her home and her assets to pay the court costs.
The same thing happened to an Oregon baker in 2013 who was required to pay a gay couple $150,000 in damages for refusing to bake a cake for their wedding in that state. There are other similar cases pending across the nation.
It’s likely that Stutzman’s case will be heard before the U.S. Supreme Court either this year or in 2018.
The case represents a clash between two Amendments to the Constitution: the first Amendment’s freedom of religion clause and the 14th Amendment’s equal protection of the law clause. Which takes precedence? Those who see gay marriage as a civil rights issue side with the state. Those who oppose this view cite the second part of the First Amendment: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or the free exercise thereof.”
Attorney General Bob Ferguson’s oral argument before the state Supreme Court was, “We must differentiate between the freedom to believe and the freedom to act.” In other words, you can believe anything, but your actions must obey the law whether it is against your religious ethics or not. This flies in the face of “the free exercise thereof” in the First Amendment.
Usually those who favor Ferguson’s approach cite the South’s miscegenation laws forbidding interracial marriages on religious grounds, saying one’s religious views can’t violate the rights of others. Religious beliefs were also cited for racial discrimination in the civil rights cases of the 1960s and 1970s, and rightly so. The Jim Crow laws that took away their freedoms harmed black lives in the South.
The difference between those civil rights cases and the legal question that has not yet been asked in the Stutzman and related cases is, “Where’s the harm?”
The Jim Crow laws definitely damaged blacks, both psychologically and financially. The same cannot be said about Barronelle Stutzman’s case. Ingersoll and his partner may have been insulted and inconvenienced, but they were not harmed financially. There were plenty of florists who would have done the flower arrangements for them.
The harm comes to the loss of income and occupations of thousands of devout Christian, Muslim and Jewish florists, bakers, photographers and wedding venue providers across the nation who will be forced to either close their businesses or give up their religious values.
This law, set up to give freedom to gays, has become a form of religious persecution for thousands. The progressives who tout tolerance for all their beliefs seem to be intolerant of the values and views of religious believers. Hopefully, the appointment of a conservative justice to the U.S. Supreme Court will protect the freedom and First Amendment rights of business people like Barronelle Stutzman. This travesty must not stand.

Rich Elfers is a columnist with the Courier-Herald in Enumclaw, a former Enumclaw City Council member and a Green River College professor.

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