No rosebuds for discriminating against gay customers

The News TribuneMay 8, 2013 

Opponents of same-sex marriage have rallied around a Richland florist who is being sued by the state attorney general’s office and the ACLU for refusing to provide flowers for a gay couple’s wedding. But the core issue isn’t same-sex marriage; it’s the consumer’s right not to face discrimination.

Florist Barronelle Stutzman says she is religiously opposed to same-sex marriage because of her Christian beliefs, and she has every right to hold that opinion. She just doesn’t have the right to impose it in the commercial marketplace.

State anti-discrimination and consumer protection law is clear: Merchants cannot refuse goods and service to someone because of race, creed, gender, national origin, sexual orientation, military status or disability.

Would Stutzman’s supporters defend her if she refused service to an Army couple on the grounds that she’s religiously opposed to war? It’s the same principle, and if her rationale were upheld, just about anyone could claim a religious basis for any kind of discrimination. In fact, they could invent a religion of their own that justifies unalloyed prejudice.

Religious organizations are a different matter; they are routinely exempted from anti-discrimination laws under the First Amendment. Otherwise the Catholic Church, for example, would be required to hire non-Catholics as priests.

The state’s same-sex marriage law (and, ultimately, the U.S. Constitution) specifically exempts religious organizations and their officials — ministers, priest, rabbis and imams — from being required to provide wedding services to same-sex couples. They get to make their own decisions on who they will and won’t marry. For instance, they are also not required to marry couples who are not of their faith, and Catholic priests are not required to marry divorced people.

As much as we adore flowers, a florist’s shop is not a church. A florist is a merchant, a service provider and under state law doesn’t get to refuse service based on a customer’s sexual orientation any more than on his or her race or religion.

Lawmakers should resist legislative efforts by state Sens. Sharon Brown, R-Kennewick, and Mike Hewitt, R-Walla Walla, that would allow merchants to discriminate against same-sex couples. Washington is a national leader in supporting equality for all its citizens; gutting the state’s anti-discrimination protection would be a sad step backward.

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