A florist in Washington State won’t provide floral arrangements for a gay wedding, citing her “relationship with Jesus Christ.” In response, the state’s attorney general has slapped a $2000 consumer protection lawsuit against the lady, alleging a violation of the state’s antidiscrimination laws. And the American Civil Liberties Union has threatened to weigh in with lawsuit on behalf of the gay couple that was refused service.
A simple case of discrimination? Think again.
First, let’s take a look at the facts. Every news report I’ve seen on this incident says that the gay couple in question were “longtime customers” of the florist, Barronelle Stutzman, and that she knew about their sexual orientation. So if they were “longtime customers” it is obvious that Ms. Stutzman does not discriminate against gays, at least in selling flowers.
But preparing flower arrangements for a wedding is something different. It is a creative act—a form of individual expression. If gays have rights under nondiscrimination laws, fundamentalist Christians have rights under the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution which guarantees both freedom of religion and freedom of expression.
If you think that the florist is in the wrong here, let me ask you this: Suppose a freelance writer writes wedding toasts. Suppose this writer is a fundamentalist Christian. Do you think that this writer should be forced to write a wedding toast for a gay wedding in violation of his or her conscience? Should a fundamentalist songwriter be forced to compose a song for a gay wedding? Should a fundamentalist painter be forced to paint a wedding portrait of a gay couple? If your answer is “no” to these three hypothetical questions, then I have another one for you: How is the case of the florist refusing to practice her art for a gay wedding any different?
Some might argue that the florist shouldn’t be allowed to impose her Christian beliefs on the rest of society. But how is the gay couple in question being imposed upon? Why can’t they simply go to another florist?
It seems to me that if coercion is being applied here, it is being applied here to a religious believer in an effort to force her to go against her convictions. Ms. Stutzman is being told, in effect, “Thou shalt not disapprove of gay marriage.”
I vividly remember a time, not so long ago, when homosexuality was generally regarded as a sin, a crime and a mental illness. I remember what it was like to be called nasty names, to be bullied or to be harassed by police because I looked like one of “them.”
Today, happily, society is much more accepting. But I am concerned that growing tolerance in one area of our national life is being offset by growing intolerance in another. The First Amendment prohibits an “establishment of religion.” There seems little danger in this day and age that Congress will pass a law making Methodism, or Mormonism or any other denomination our national church. But the prosecution of the Washington State florist suggests that we may see the establishment of another kind of religion—a civil religion based on political correctness, under which dissent from liberal orthodoxy is viewed as a sin against the Holy Ghost.
That is why I find this case so disturbing. In a truly free country it should be possible to satisfy all parties concerned here: The gay couple should be able avail themselves of the free market to find a florist who will do their decorations, and the Christian florist should be able to follow her religious beliefs.
Forcing the Washington State florist to do the arrangements for this gay wedding may win a battle for gay marriage. But it could cause gays to lose the war. Pro-family groups have already seized on this episode as proof that if gays are permitted to marry, fundamentalist Christians will be “persecuted” if they object. Coercive government tactics, such as those now being applied in Washington State, serve only to reinforce this argument.
While I believe that gays should have the right to marry, I also believe in freedom of religion. And I think that in this instance, asking the gay couple to find another florist is less of a threat to civil liberties than having the government force the florist to flout her faith.
Hal Gordon, who wrote speeches for the Reagan White House and Gen. Colin Powell, is currently a freelance speechwriter in Houston. Web site: www.ringingwords.com.