Arlene’s Flowers & Gifts proprietor Barronelle Stutzman had been selling flowers to Robert Ingersoll and his partner, Curt Freed, his partner, for a decade, but drew a line in the sand when they wanted her business to supply the floral arrangements for their same-sex marriage. She refused, citing her relationship with God. This week, Washington State Attorney General Bob Ferguson filed a consumer protection lawsuit against Stutzman, drawing a line of his own.
There are legal and ethical issues mixed up here like gazpacho, and some of them are not difficult. For example, whether Stutzman should have the legal right to do so or not, her decision to reject and stigmatize long-time customers is indefensible ethically. It is cruel, unfair, ungrateful and disrespectful. They were good enough to profit from for ten years, but not good enough to accommodate at the most important time of their lives? Such conduct earns a massive ethics “Yechh.”
Stutzman explained her actions by saying, “It’s a personal conviction. It’s not a matter of being right or wrong. It’s my belief.” What’s that belief, that you should show no loyalty or common decency to customers who have always been fair to you? That the Bible declares it a sin to supply floral arrangements to a gay wedding? This isn’t a matter of principle, because there is no principle, at least no sensible or clear one. She says that her faith prohibits her from helping her “friends” celebrate. No, it doesn’t. She doesn’t have to go to the wedding, give the couple a gift, or even send them a card wishing them well. All she has to do is supply services and goods for a fee to the same couple she has been happily taking money from all along. She doesn’t even have to do it with a smile.
She’s wrong, her reasoning is warped, and her conduct is a slam-dunk violation of Kant’s Rule of Universality (which is to say that the world would be a lousier place for gay couples if everyone acted like Stutzman) as well as the ethical principle nicely articulated by her Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. It’s called the Golden Rule: “Thou Shalt Not Kick A Friend In The Face Because You Wouldn’t Like Being Kicked In The Face Yourself.”
OK, I’m paraphrasing a little.
What about Ingersoll and Freed? Is it ethical—fair, responsible, proportionate, prudent—for them to sic the law on Stutzman for being a fool, rather than just going to another florist? Their actions has the foul hint of bullying and retribution about it. It would certainly be ethical to just tell Stutzman off and stop patronizing Arlene’s, but I think the ethical and legal principles involved here make their response ethically defensible as well.
Legally, it is a more difficult question for me. Legal rulings have precedentiary effect, and one supporting Ingersoll and Freed could mean, to take one example, that singers who don’t approve of gay marriages could be forced to sing at them. Florists are perfectly positioned in the gray territory between a public accommodation, such as a restaurant or pharmacy, where society has a legitimate interest in restricting personal liberty to ensure equal access to the basics of life, and expressive or artistic pursuits that the law usually can’t compel. That gray area creates the slipperiest of slopes, which is why the betting is that this case will end up in the laps of nine U.S. Supreme Court Justices.
It is, as the King of Siam would say, a puzzlement. Part of liberty is the right to be an unethical jerk, as Stutzman is being, but none of us can enjoy our Constitutionally guaranteed liberty when others treat us as second class citizens and second class human beings while society, in the form of legal authority, shrugs. I come down here on the side of the gay couple and Washington State, but I’m not thrilled about it.