Florist claims her rights are being violated

Richland merchant refused to provide flowers for customers' same-sex wedding

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photoArlene's Flowers on Lee Boulevard in Richland is seen March 6. The Washington Attorney General's Office is suing the owner of Arlene's Flowers for discrimination for refusing to provide flowers for a same-sex wedding.

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RICHLAND — The lawyer for a Richland florist sued for refusing to provide flowers for a gay wedding hopes to move the state lawsuit to federal court as a free speech case.

"What the state is saying is you are compelled to express assent on an issue that you don't agree with, and that violates the First Amendment," said attorney Justin D. Bristol of Snohomish.

It's not about discrimination, he said Wednesday.

Bristol represents Barronelle Stutzman, owner of Arlene's Flowers. In March, Stutzman refused to provide flowers for the wedding of two longtime customers, Robert Ingersoll and Curt Freed, of Kennewick, because of her religious objection to gay marriage.

Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson announced a consumer protection lawsuit Tuesday against Stutzman for refusing the flower arrangements. It's unlawful to discriminate against customers on the basis of 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," Ferguson said in a statement.

In the complaint filed Tuesday in Benton County Superior Court, the attorney general's office seeks a court order requiring Arlene's Flowers to comply with consumer protection law. The state also seeks a $2,000 fine.

Washington voters approved same-sex marriage in November.

Bristol said Stutzman doesn't discriminate against homosexuals and has served them as customers and hired them as employees.

"It's not a public accommodation case," he said. "She simply doesn't believe in gay marriage. She believes marriage should be between a man and a woman."

Most free speech cases involve the government trying to prevent speech or expression, but in this case the government is trying to force Stutzman to express herself through flower-arranging in support of something she doesn't believe in, Bristol said.