Don’t let this hate group’s kindly grandma convince you discrimination is okay

It takes a lot of lies to make anti-gay bigotry look good.

CREDIT: Youtube/Alliance Defending Freedom/Screenshot
CREDIT: Youtube/Alliance Defending Freedom/Screenshot

The Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), an anti-LGBTQ hate group, is spearheading many attempts by conservatives to chip away at equality. Among those efforts is a series of court cases in which they attempt to justify discrimination against same-sex couples on the basis of “religious freedom,” such as the Masterpiece Cakeshop case about Colorado baker Jack Phillips that the US Supreme Court will decide in the coming weeks.

As part of its campaign against equality, ADF produces polished videos that attempt to endear viewers to the idea that anti-gay discrimination is tolerable in society. The group’s latest video features another of its clients, Washington florist Barronelle Stutzman, a kindly grandmother who is defending her decision to refuse to make the floral arrangement for a male customer’s wedding because he was marrying a man. Like Phillips, she has lost at every level of state court for violating state law, but she has also appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, and her fate will likely be determined by the ruling in his case.

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In the video, Stutzman seems to suggest that the fate of her business and her family’s entire economic well-being is at stake. But to achieve this sympathetic portrayal, she lies repeatedly — both about the actions she took and the consequences she has faced. Contrary to her assertions, Stutzman has been a national spokesperson for ADF for years, and all she is selling in the video is prejudice and intolerance.

Even the first words out of Stutzman’s mouth are lies:

I think the worst part is when they say I won’t serve gay people. That’s just not true. I’ve never discriminated against anyone in my life.

No one is saying she won’t serve gay people; what people say is that she won’t serve gay people equally. And by refusing to sell the exact same service to a same-sex couple that she sells to a different-couple, she has, indeed, discriminated.

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ADF’s primary hook in its pro-discrimination arguments is that an artist like Stutzman shouldn’t have to apply her creativity to a same-sex wedding if it violates her religious beliefs. But what that actually means is that they believe it should be acceptable for a public-facing business to offer different menus to different customers based solely on their identity.

Baskin-Robbins famously adopted the slogan “31 flavors” to suggest to customers that they should be able to enjoy a different flavor of ice cream every day of the month. But imagine if the chain offered a menu of 31 flavors to white customers but only 14 flavors to customers of color. The chain could argue in this totally hypothetical example that it serves people of color, but it would still be clearly discriminating against its non-white customers.

The same is true of Stutzman and other wedding vendors that ADF represents. If she refused to arrange flowers for an interracial wedding, it would clearly be discrimination on the basis of race. Likewise, if she refused to accommodate a wedding simply because it was between a Jewish woman and a Christian man, that would be discrimination on the basis of religion. What ADF is counting on is that viewers will be more accommodating of discrimination against LGBTQ people than they are other groups.

Stutzman proceeds to describe Robert Ingersoll, whose wedding she refused to provide flowers for, as not just one of her favorite customers, but a friend. “He’s been coming in to me for over nine years,” she explains, insinuating that he’s still continuing to patronize her after she discriminated against him and he sued her. After recounting how they were best buddies, she proceeds to explain just how nicely she discriminated against him.

Twice she mentions how much she loves Rob, and she emphasizes that she wanted to be gentle and not hurt his feelings. According to her version of the story, she held his hand when she told him that she should not provide the flowers for his wedding, and he said he understood and was “very loving.” They chatted about the engagement and hugged after she recommended some other florists.

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Unlike Stutzman, who ADF has trotted out to giant conferences and rallies for years, Ingersoll has not said as much publicly. But the few things he has said directly contradict her account that “Rob had graciously accepted my explanation and that we had parted as friends.”

In his court statement, here’s how Ingersoll described the interaction:

Ms. Stutzman took my hand and said that she could not do the flowers because of her relationship with Jesus Christ. I was in complete and utter shock by what she said, but to be polite, I asked whether she knew any florists who would do our flowers. Ms. Stutzman gave me the names of three other florists in the area.

In a 2015 op-ed in the Seattle Times, Ingersoll and his husband Curt Freed similarly explained that they were “shocked” when they were turned away. But unlike Stutzman’s very personal account, they didn’t identify her by name, instead just referring to the name of her shop, Arlene’s Flowers. They did acknowledge that they had been customers there for years. “But all of a sudden,” they wrote, “it was as if we were no longer seen as Curt and Rob, or even regular customers, but as gay marriage personified.”

They went on to describe the “horrible” feeling of rejection and explained that they were so shaken by the experience that they actually changed their entire wedding plans to a smaller ceremony on a different date — fearful that they might experience similar rejections from other vendors.

After she received a letter from the Washington Attorney General threatening to sue her if she discriminates, Stutzman claims she was in shock. “It didn’t seem possible to me that Rob would have filed a complaint, and he hadn’t.” She goes on to claim that “the government and the ACLU sued my business and me personally for discrimination.”

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But the ACLU was representing Freed and Ingersoll!  And while it’s true that Freed’s viral Facebook note about the discrimination was what prompted the attorney general to take action, he and Ingersoll did eventually file a complaint. Indeed, the aforementioned op-ed the couple wrote was actually called, “Why we sued our favorite florist,” and they describe partnering with the ACLU to challenge the discrimination because “we want to keep others from experiencing it, too.” Stutzman even wrote a reply called “Why a friend is suing me.”

ADF seems intent on painting this picture that Ingersoll and Stutzman still have a peachy friendship and that she’s just the victim of these big forces. But even the government’s actions stemmed from the couple’s own objections to how they were treated. And discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation is illegal in the state of Washington, so ADF is really just trying to paint her as sympathetic just for being held accountable for breaking the law.

Later in the video, after again suggesting she doesn’t discriminate, she asks, “Will I let the government force me to create art expressing things I don’t believe in? No, and that’s my right. That’s every American’s First Amendment right.” The Washington Supreme Court, ruling against Stutzman, expressly rejected this argument, explaining, “the decision to either provide or refuse to provide flowers for a wedding does not inherently express a message about that wedding.” Stutzman herself has admitted she could provide flowers to a Muslim or atheist wedding without endorsing either worldview. It’s only serving same-sex weddings that — for whatever reason — intrudes on her speech and faith.

The last big lie ADF wants people to believe about Stutzman is that her livelihood is on the line:

If I lose in court, I will likely lose everything. The penalties and attorneys’ fees could be well over $1 million dollars. My business would be gone. My husband and I would lose our home and our retirement.

First of all, if any of that does come true, it’s ADF’s fault — not anybody else’s. If they cover her fees as her legal representation, then leave her out to dry after convincing her to keep fighting, she has no one else to blame.

But that’s particularly true given how many opportunities she’s been given to resolve the case without paying much of anything:

  • Before they sued, Ingersoll and Freedom gave Stutzman an ultimatum. If she vowed not to discriminate in the future, published an apology in a newspaper, and donated $5,000 to an LGBT youth center, they wouldn’t sue. She declined, so they sued.
  • When they sued, the couple asked for a whopping $7.91 (the cost of driving to another florist), and the state offered to let her simply pay the highest possible fine the law allows for: $2,000, plus $1 for costs and fees. Stutzman declined.
  • When a lower court first ruled against her, the judge fined her only $1,000, plus $1 for costs and fees, but she nevertheless appealed.

Even with the Washington Supreme Court’s ruling against her, the fines haven’t changed. The only costs Stutzman faces are the attorneys’ fees for her opponents, which she wouldn’t have if she had just agreed not to discriminate in the first place.

“Rob and Curt have the freedom to live their lives according to their beliefs,” she says at the end of the video. “Should I not have that same right?” It’s an evocative statement, but yet another distortion. Rob and Curt do not have any more right to discriminate, in violation of state law, than Stutzman does.

Without the proper context for her lies and omissions, Stutzman’s pleas for understanding might sound rather compelling. That’s surely what ADF is counting on. In addition to Phillips and Stutzman, ADF has a litany of other clients who are all fighting to overturn state and local LGBTQ nondiscrimination protections across the country with business plans ADF helped design for that express purpose.

If the Supreme Court rules in Phillips’ favor in the coming month — granting him and other wedding vendors like Stutzman exemption from laws against anti-gay discrimination — it will set a precedent that will allow ADF to quickly knock down these laws like dominoes. The people most inclined to discriminate against LGBTQ people will have free rein to do just that, but it largely depends on ADF’s ability to persuade the public that it’s not really discrimination or that it’s just not that bad.

As Ingersoll and Freed wrote in 2015, “If businesses serving the general public are allowed to opt out of serving the millions of Americans who are gay, true equality will still be a long way off.”