A judge in Washington state has slammed the grandmother who owns and operates Arlene’s Flowers with personal liability should she lose any of the lawsuits pending against her for adhering to her religious convictions and declining to celebrate and decorate for same-sex ceremonies.
The case against Barronelle Stutzman began when Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson sued the Richland, Washington, grandmother for operating her business according to the dictates of her Christian faith.
The issue is that in Washington, officials believe the state’s statutory protections for homosexuals trump the Constitution’s protection of religious liberty.
After Ferguson sued on behalf of the state, the ACLU also joined in the case against Stutzman, filing an additional lawsuit on behalf of several customers. Both suits target not only the business’s assets but Stutzman’s personal property, savings and assets.
According to a new report from the Family Policy Institute of Washington, Benton County Superior Court Judge Alex Ackstrom ruled on Thursday that her personal assets can be targeted.
“As a result of this decision, the government can go after both the business assets of Arlene’s Flowers and personal assets of Barronelle Stutzman to collect attorney’s fees should their lawsuits prevail,” the institute reported.
Kristen Waggoner, a lawyer with the Alliance Defending Freedom, which has been representing the longtime florist, expressed horror.
“In America, the government is supposed to protect freedom, not intimidate citizens into speaking and acting contrary to their faith under threat of severe punishment,” she said. “The government is sending a clear message to Barronelle and the people of Washington: Dare to disagree with the government, and you put your home, your family business, and your life savings at risk.”
Trial in the case is scheduled for March 23.
The family institute said the “narrow question of personal liability in a specific lawsuit is not itself a conspiracy against conscience rights and religious freedom.”
“However, there is little doubt that the government’s ability to go after the personal assets of business owners who prefer not to be part of certain events will continue to chill the free exercise of religion that until recently was celebrated and protected in America.”
The institute said: “Whatever the outcome of this specific case, the real solution is a state legislature that respects a marketplace of ideas that makes room for people of different backgrounds, faiths, and perspectives. But the legislature won’t act unless the public insists on it.”
The ADF had argued that the flower corporation was set up under a Washington law that protects personal assets except in cases of knowing fraud, deception or theft, none of which is alleged in the case.
The organization also argued that there was no discrimination against Rob Ingersoll, a homosexual cited in the case, since Stutzman had served him with flower arrangements many times.
“Mr. Ingersoll was offered free flowers. This gentle grandmother is basically being sued for all she owns. Does this sound like equality to you?” ADF asked in a commentary about the case.
“Barronelle’s case could set an alarming precedent for Christians who are living out their faith in their daily work,” ADF said.
The same circumstances also have developed for a baker in Colorado, a photographer in New Mexico and a wedding venue in the Northeast, observers note.