SEATTLE (AP) — The American Civil Liberties Union in Washington state filed a lawsuit Thursday on behalf of a Kennewick gay couple denied service at a flower shop for their upcoming wedding.
The lawsuit is in response to a March 1 incident in which Barronelle Stutzman refused to provide flowers for Robert Ingersoll and Curt Freed's wedding, despite the two men being longtime patrons of her shop — Arlene's Flowers and Gifts in Richland, about 200 miles southeast of Seattle.
Thursday's lawsuit is the second legal action taken against Stutzman. Last week, Washington state Attorney General Bob Ferguson filed a consumer protection lawsuit.
Ferguson had sent a letter in March asking her to comply with the law, but said Stutzman's attorneys responded saying she would challenge any state action to enforce the law. Her attorney, Justin D. Bristol, has said he expects to take the legal battle to federal court and argue Stutzman's refusal of service based on the 1st Amendment's right to free speech.
Stutzman was not available at her flower shop Thursday. A message left at Bristol's office was not immediately returned.
While Washington voters legalized gay marriage this past November, protections against discrimination based on sexual orientation were codified in 2006, in one of the first initial pushes to expand civil rights to the gay community.
"The refusal to sell flowers to the couple is a disturbing reminder of the unequal treatment that gay men and women have experienced over the years," said ACLU of Washington legal director Sarah Dunne in a statement. "When a business serves the general public, the business owner's religious beliefs may not be used to justify discrimination."
Ingersoll and Freed had been customers of Stutzman for years and she knew the two men were in a relationship. But once Ingersoll informed her they were getting married, she told him she wouldn't sell him flowers, the lawsuit said.
"The shock and hurt, it took Rob back," Freed said Thursday, who added the incident happened on Ingersoll's birthday. "We had friends over. We told them what happened. We watched their surprise and anger."
Freed said the couple is ready for a long legal battle. They have been together for nine years and plan to wed in September.
"The florist discriminated against us as a result of our sexual orientation. Because we're a gay couple, she chose not to serve us. We feel like that's something she should not be allowed to do," Freed said.
The lawsuit, filed in Benton County Superior Court, seeks a court order barring her from discriminating against customers on the basis of sexual orientation and damages for violation of the couple's rights as well as unspecified damages.
Under state law, it's illegal for businesses to refuse to sell goods, merchandise and services to any person because of their sexual orientation.
Manuel Valdes can be reached at http://twitter.com/ByManuelValdes