Guest opinion: Barronelle Stutzman, owner of Arlene’s Flowers, explains why she felt she could not sell flower arrangements for a gay friend’s wedding.

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MOST people, seeing that headline, might think: “Shouldn’t it be ‘My Ex-Friend Is Suing Me?’ ” But Rob Ingersoll will always be my friend. Recent events [“Why true marriage equality matters to us,” Opinion, Nov. 1] have complicated — but not changed — that fact for me.

I’ve been a florist in Richland for 30 years. You don’t work that long in a small town without getting to know your customers very well and counting many of them as friends. Rob and I hit it off from the beginning because, like me, he looks at flowers with an artist’s eye. We see not just potential bouquets, but how different combinations and just-right arrangements can bring a special beauty, memories and even a little humor to someone’s birthday, anniversary — or wedding.

That’s why I always liked bouncing off creative ideas with Rob for special events in his life. He understood the deep joy that comes from precisely capturing and celebrating the spirit of an occasion. For 10 years, we encouraged that artistry in each other.

Arlene's Flowers in Richland in 2013 (Tri-City Herald)
Arlene’s Flowers in Richland in 2013 (Tri-City Herald)

I knew he was in a relationship with a man and he knew I was a Christian. But that never clouded the friendship for either of us or threatened our shared creativity — until he asked me to design something special to celebrate his upcoming wedding.

If all he’d asked for were prearranged flowers, I’d gladly have provided them. If the celebration were for his partner’s birthday, I’d have been delighted to pour my best into the challenge. But as a Christian, weddings have a particular significance.

Marriage does celebrate two people’s love for one another, but its sacred meaning goes far beyond that. Surely without intending to do so, Rob was asking me to choose between my affection for him and my commitment to Christ. As deeply fond as I am of Rob, my relationship with Jesus is everything to me. Without Christ, I can do nothing.

As deeply fond as I am of Rob, my relationship with Jesus is everything to me. Without Christ, I can do nothing.”

I’m not ashamed of that, but it was a painful thing to try to explain to someone I cared about — one of the hardest things I’ve ever done in my life. But Rob assured me he understood. And I suggested three other nearby florists I knew would do an excellent job for this celebration that meant so much to him. We seemed to part as friends.

But then I was sued.

For artists, creativity is the very core of who we are. Our ability to draw on our deepest beliefs and unique sensibilities enables us to create one-of-a-kind works of art and works of the heart. An artist really can’t separate his or her work from the soul. Even if I’d tried to do that for Rob, some part of my heart would not really have been in what I was doing. A man with Rob’s artistic eye would have seen that and been disappointed.

I’ve never questioned Rob’s and Curt Freed’s right to live out their beliefs. And I wouldn’t have done anything to keep them from getting married, or even getting flowers. Even setting aside my warm feelings for them, I wouldn’t have deliberately taken actions that would mean the end of being able to do the work I love or risk my family’s home and savings.

I just couldn’t see a way clear in my heart to honor God with the talents He has given me by going against the word He has given us.

This case is not about refusing service on the basis of sexual orientation or dislike for another person who is preciously created in God’s image. I sold flowers to Rob for years. I helped him find someone else to design his wedding arrangements. I count him as a friend.

I want to believe that a state as diverse as Washington, with our long commitment to personal and religious freedoms, would be as willing to honor my right to make those kinds of choices as it is to honor Rob’s right to make his. That’s not endorsing a negative thing, as I’ve been accused of doing. It’s promoting good things: reason, fairness and mutual tolerance.

I don’t think that’s too much to ask of a court of law — or from a friend I dearly miss.