Bravo! Christian Science Monitor's seven-part religious liberty series delivers a punch

Living as I do just east of Seattle, I’ve been waiting for a magazine to do the definitive profile of Barronelle Stutzman, the Richland, Wash., florist who’s getting sued to the nines for refusing to provide flowers for the wedding of a gay friend (and long-time customer).

Whereas the New Yorker and the Atlantic have sat this one out, the Christian Science Monitor team stepped in. Their Stutzman piece, which ran last week, leans over backward to give the facts linked to the florist’s side of the story, as well as the views of her critics.

It is part of an intriguing series of seven stories on religious liberty and gay rights and it’s the best treatment I’ve seen yet. The lead story discusses how gay rights is pushing many religious Americans into a corner where they feel compelled to support behaviors their faith condemns as immoral. Look for the Russell Moore quote about the sexual revolution not tolerating public dissent and the John Inazu quote about what will happen to our society when faith-based organizations -- if stripped of their nonprofit status -- cease to provide social services to the hungry, poor and homeless.

Other Monitor stories include one asking whether wedding photography is art protected under the First Amendment and whether an artist can be compelled to produce a work she disagrees with (in this case art linked to a gay wedding rite). Then there was this story about the hate mail and death threats that wedding cake designers in Oregon, Colorado and Texas as well as Stutzman the florist have gotten after their well-publicized court cases. This is the first time I’ve seen any media bother to cover this angle.

In covering these issues, the Monitor goes deeper and provides more background than anywhere else I’ve read. The Stutzman story was unusual in that it told some of the legal machinations behind her case.

Barronelle Stutzman loved doing custom floral work for Robert Ingersoll. He became one of her best customers, often encouraging her creativity.
“Do your thing,” he would tell her when placing an order. And he loved what she did.
Over the years, Mr. Ingersoll spent nearly $4,500 on flowers and arrangements by the florist in Richland, Wash.
But one day, he made a request that was different from his earlier orders. He asked Ms. Stutzman if she would design the flowers for his upcoming wedding ceremony. The request thrust her into a moral dilemma.

Here is where the piece explains her POV:

Through a thriving nine-year business relationship, the fact that Mr. Ingersoll is gay had never been relevant.
But it was now.
As a devout Southern Baptist, Stutzman’s involvement in a same-sex wedding would violate her religious beliefs about the sanctity of marriage as a divinely blessed union exclusively between one man and one woman.
She did not object to selling flowers or floral arrangements from her shop to Ingersoll, as she’d done many times before. What she objected to was the possibility of a job requiring her personal involvement in the celebration of a same-sex marriage. That would be a denunciation of her faith.

Where this story departs from other narratives is how it characterizes the legal forces arrayed against her:

Now, three years after the brief meeting in her flower shop, the 71-year-old florist is facing the prospect of financial ruin.
Washington State Attorney General Bob Ferguson and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Washington have filed discrimination lawsuits. In addition to targeting her business, Arlene’s Flowers, Inc., they sued Stutzman personally, ensuring that any assets she might own beyond the flower shop could be taken from her to pay their own legal fees if she lost.

What kind of animus is driving the state AG’s office and the local ACLU?

Soon after, Freed posted a comment on his Facebook page recounting the florist’s refusal. It went viral. According to a sworn deposition filed in the case, the Facebook post generated “overwhelming” support for the couple from across the United States. It also attracted the attention of the media, the state attorney general, and the ACLU.
At first, both Freed and Ingersoll thought Stutzman had a right to refuse their business based on her religious beliefs. Ingersoll even confided to a friend shortly after the exchange that he did not plan to file a lawsuit. “Not my thing,” he said in an email.
That view changed after conversations with friends and a personal phone call from Attorney General Ferguson. The ACLU also agreed to represent the couple in a private lawsuit against Stutzman and her company.

Really, now? So the ACLU and the state put the couple up to it? That’s an interesting factoid I’ve not seen explained in any Seattle-area media.

The article goes on to describe the legal forces arrayed against Stutzman, at one point calling the ACLU and state moves “litigation hardball” designed to break Stutzman. But she refused to cave. Remember, if she loses the case, she will have to pay the legal fees of the winners, and the ACLU has said theirs is more than $1 million, which will surely bankrupt this woman. When the reporter confronted the ACLU attorney with this:

She downplayed the threatening nature of the lawsuit. “It’s not like we mailed her a horse’s head,” the lawyer says.
“We have no interest in Ms. Stutzman’s assets,” she adds. “Look, the ACLU doesn’t litigate to make money. And we don’t litigate cases to drive people into bankruptcy. That is never our goal.”

Is she serious? Do read the whole piece, as it’s quite enlightening in that it took a media outlet based in Boston to unearth facts in a Washington state case that I’ve not seen discussed elsewhere. What’s important, the reporter explains, is this:

In Washington State and beyond, Stutzman’s case is being closely watched because it may establish a framework for how to resolve clashes between LGBT advocates and religious conservatives.

I’m not sure that Stutzman would call suing her a way of “resolving” the clash but the reporter goes on to explain how the case would regulate how people can act out their beliefs in public. The new logic" "Free exercise" of religion takes place in private, as in the space between one's ears.

In ruling against Stutzman in 2015, the state judge drew a distinction between a citizen’s freedom to believe, which he said was absolute, and a citizen’s freedom to act in public on those beliefs, which he said can be regulated by the government.
In effect, the judge said that belief is personal, but if individuals seek to express those beliefs in action, the anti-discrimination law would trump any claim for a religious exemption.
“The judge told me I could have my faith but I couldn’t practice it -- keep it in the four walls of the church,” Stutzman says. “That’s like me telling Rob and Curt you can be gay, but once you leave your house you can no longer be gay.”

The series also includes a story profiling a network of gay-friendly wedding photographers with the goal of avoiding lawsuits and the embarrassment of one's wedding being turned down for religious reasons.

The writer brings up an interesting twist: What if a photographer is a vegetarian and is asked to shoot a Santeria service involving animal sacrifices? If they are allowed to refuse such an assignment, why aren't Christian photographers allowed to turn down gay weddings?

The entire series was written by reporter Warren Richey and I hope the Monitor submits it to every journalism contest in sight. It deserves plenty of awards. 

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