By JOHN FORTMEYER
The Christian owners of two separate Pacific Northwest wedding-related businesses — one in Oregon and one in Washington — both experienced a difficult February because of controversial stances they took based on their faith.
On Feb. 2, the Oregon Bureau of Labor and Industries (BOLI) issued an interim order that a Gresham bakery two years ago unlawfully discriminated against a same-sex couple when it declined to bake a cake for their wedding.
Then eight days later, a Washington state judge ruled that a Richland florist who refused to provide flowers to a gay couple for their wedding violated state consumer protection and anti-discrimination law. On Feb. 19, that florist rejected a settlement offer proposed by the state attorney general.
In both cases, which have garnered national attention, the authorities rejected arguments from the business owners that their actions were protected by freedoms of speech and religion.
The ruling against Sweet Cakes by Melissa clears the way for a March 10 hearing in Portland to determine how much in damages bakery owners Aaron and Melissa Klein will now owe Rachel Bowman-Cryer and Laurel Bowman-Cryer. BOLI Administrative Law Judge Alan McCullough, who issued the Feb. 2 order, will recommend a damage amount to state Labor Commissioner Brad Avakian. His decision could be appealed to the courts.
According to their attorneys, the Kleins could face as much as $200,000 in damages. The loss of business that the Kleins faced over the controversy has already forced closure of their Gresham storefront and the bakery was moved into their home.
The Washington ruling by Benton County Superior Court Judge Alex Ekstrom means the case against Arlene’s Flowers and its owner, Barronelle Stutzman, won’t go to trial in March as scheduled. Ekstrom determined that the essential facts aren’t in dispute and a trial isn’t needed. Stutzman’s attorneys plan to appeal the ruling. Stutzman also has countersued the state; that case is on hold in federal court, according to the Tri-City Herald newspaper.
State Attorney General Bob Ferguson and the same-sex couple, Robert Ingersoll and Curt Freed, both filed lawsuits against Stutzman. The Benton County court also ruled recently that they may collect damages and attorneys’ fees not only from her business, but from Stutzman personally. Thus she potentially could not only lose her florist shop but also her home and savings because she applied her beliefs to her business operation.
On Feb. 19, Ferguson offered to settle the case with Stutzman “for a penalty of $2,000 under the Consumer Protection Act, a $1 payment for costs and fees, an agreement not to discriminate in the future, and an end to further litigation.”
Stutzman quickly rejected the offer.
“Your offer reveals that you don’t really understand me or what this conflict is all about,” Stutzman responded to Ferguson. “It’s about freedom, not money. I certainly don’t relish the idea of losing my business, my home, and everything else that your lawsuit threatens to take from my family, but my freedom to honor God in doing what I do best is more important … You chose to attack my faith and pursue this not simply as a matter of law, but to threaten my very means of working, eating, and having a home. If you are serious about clarifying the law, then I urge you to drop your claims against my home, business, and other assets….”
In both cases, attorneys for the same-sex couples praised last month’s ruling. Paul Thompson, a Portland lawyer for the Bowman-Cryers, told The Oregonian that he felt the law clearly prevents businesses from discriminating on the basis of sexual orientation. And Sarah Dunne, legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington, representing Ingersoll and Freed, told the Tri-City Herald religious freedoms do not allow a business to treat gay customers differently from anyone else.
Attorneys for the Christian business owners disagreed strongly with the rulings.
Anna Harmon, a Canby attorney for the Kleins, said “Americans should not have to choose between adhering to their faith or closing their business, but this is what this decision means … The judge ruled wrongly that the Kleins’ right not to design and create a work of art celebrating an event which violates the tenets of their religion is not protected by the Oregon or federal constitutions. This is a dangerous result for religious liberty and rights of conscience in Oregon.”
Similar concerns about the Washington case were voiced by Kristen Waggoner, senior counsel for Alliance Defending Freedom, a Christian legal rights group representing Stutzman.
“The message of these rulings is unmistakable: the government will bring about your personal and professional ruin if you don’t help celebrate same-sex marriage,” said Waggoner. “Laws that are supposed to prohibit discrimination might sound good, but the government has begun to use these laws to hurt people — to force them to conform and to silence and punish them if they don’t violate their religious beliefs on marriage.”
Stutzman said her rights are being violated: “I just want the freedom to live and work faithfully and according to what God says about marriage without fear of punishment. Others have the freedom to say or not say what they want to about marriage, and that’s all I’m asking for as well.”