by Nicholas K. Geranios
SPOKANE, Wash. — The 70-year-old grandmother who owns a flower shop in Washington state and became a national figure for refusing to provide flowers for a same-sex wedding says she was surprised her actions gained such notoriety and had often done business with the gay couple, whom she considered friends.
Barronelle Stutzman of Arlene’s Flowers refused the couple in 2013, and her actions were among the first in what has become a nationwide quandary for bakers and others who believe same-sex marriage conflicts with their religious beliefs.
“I’m a little grain of sand,” Stutzman told The Associated Press in a telephone interview from Richland, about 145 miles southwest of Spokane.
In a February ruling, Benton County Superior Court Judge Alexander Ekstrom found that Stutzman’s refusal to provide flowers because of sexual orientation violated Washington’s anti-discrimination and consumer protection laws. She has been fined $1,000, plus $1 in court costs and fees.
Stutzman believes the judge’s decision prevents her from practicing her Southern Baptist faith.
She plans to appeal the decision, which could leave her liable for legal fees and court costs that reach over $1 million, her attorney said. More than $85,000 has been raised in a crowdfunding campaign to help Stutzman pay legal bills.
The judge’s ruling also required that everything Arlene’s Flowers sells to opposite-sex couples has to be available at the same price to same-sex couples. Because of that, Stutzman is no longer providing flowers for weddings, which has cut substantially into her business.
Stutzman said she has also received hate mail and some threats, and has taken some security precautions that she declined to specify.
She said she was friendly with customers Robert Ingersoll and Curt Freed, and often sold them flowers. But when they sought to buy wedding flowers, she drew a line based on her faith.
“Rob and I had been friends for years and I waited on him and designed fun things,” she said. “We had a great relationship until the government stepped in.”
Ingersoll acknowledged that he had been friendly with Stutzman for years, but he has not done business with her since the controversy.
“It was a friendly business relationship, that’s a fairly important distinction,” Freed said, stressing that they were not friendly outside the flower shop.
After they were refused flowers, Ingersoll and Freed used another florist for their wedding.
But state Attorney General Bob Ferguson pursued the consumer protection case against Stutzman, an action she says threatened her livelihood and retirement plans.
Stutzman said there was a difference between selling flowers to Ingersoll and Freed and handling their wedding.
“It’s at time commitment and a personal commitment. I want to be their personal florist,” she said. “It’s also a religious ceremony.”
Stutzman was born in Springfield, Missouri. She moved with her family to the Tri-Cities of Richland, Kennewick and Pasco in eastern Washington in 1948, when the region was a boomtown and the federal government’s Manhattan Project was making plutonium for nuclear weapons.
She is married with eight children, 22 grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.
Stutzman entered the florist business 30 years ago, when her mother bought a flower shop and she started as a delivery person. Soon she began making floral arrangements.
When her mother became ill, Stutzman bought the shop. While her father was an atheist, Stutzman and her mother went to church every Sunday.
Stutzman said she is holding up under the stress of the case and bears no ill will toward the couple.
“The support has far outweighed the bad,” she said. “If (Rob) comes in, I would give him a hug and catch up on his life.”