A Washington florist finds that her commitment to Christ puts her at odds with the state attorney general
She slips inside the way most people seem to come into a flower shop … like she’s stepped through the looking glass, out of the hard-edged world of traffic and asphalt into a small patch of jungle maintained by Hallmark. Stuffed bears blend with sunflowers, exotic vases with violets and petunias. Women in aprons scurry between the ferns in the hothouse and the roses in the cooler.
One of the women, white-haired and wearing glasses, steps briskly over to the new customer with a sunny “Good morning” that belies the overcast skies outside. “May I help you?”
A distant relative has died. The customer is looking for something appropriate to send by way of floral condolence. The woman behind the counter is helpful in the way you’d want a florist to be: warm but not demonstrative, polite but not intrusive. The customer has a hard time explaining exactly what she wants, but the florist quickly grasps the idea, and shows her an arrangement that she likes immediately. She writes down an address and pulls out her checkbook.
“Aren’t you Barronelle Stutzman?” she asks.
Barronelle’s eyes look up, just a little wary: “Yes, I am.”
“My mother told me to come see you,” the customer says, smiling. “She heard about you on the radio. She said we need to support you.”
Barronelle smiles, and relaxes a little. It’s a bit of an odd moment for her, because—until recently—she’s been the one who puts her customers at ease. For 35 years, they’ve been wandering into her shop to share their hearts and mark their mortal milestones: a new baby, a prom, a wedding, a friend in the hospital, a funeral. They come to buy, but wind up talking. Around Valentine’s Day and Mother’s Day, Barronelle hears more overflowing souls than a priest in the confessional.
Her ability to listen and discern her customers’ floral desires—to produce beautiful arrangements that say what they don’t quite know how to say—has long been a point of professional pride for Barronelle. One spring day last year, though, that discernment required of her an especially painful decision … and became the turning point of her life.
With Barronelle, it’s not really about selling flowers. That just pays the bills. Long years ago, making deliveries for her mom’s shop after school, she found that carrying vases full of flora around to offices, churches, and hospitals held little appeal for her. Sweeping floors and cleaning out buckets held even less. But then a manager quit, and Barronelle filled in, and soon enough, she made a wonderful discovery: florists don’t just sell the flowers … they create the bouquets, weave the wreaths, design the arrangements—and summon the emotions. Gradually, she found she had a subtle sense for what colors and kinds to mingle. It was her calling, her gift, and—to her surprise—her ministry.
Ask her employees (10-12 on an average day, twice that during big holidays), and many will tell you how Barronelle took them in at a low point in their lives—after the divorce, the retirement, or the move to Richland from some other part of the country. She has a kind of sensible sensitivity for giving struggling souls the job, the environment, and the time they need to heal.
“She’s not just a boss, she’s a friend, and a sister in Christ,” says Janelle Becker, who’s worked with her for more than a decade. “One of a kind. When we need prayer, or someone to talk to, she’s always there.”
Running the shop (named Arlene’s, for the original owner) “is just a real ministry,” Barronelle says. She likes “the people you meet, and the chance to serve them.” That, and the creativity.
Your father was a farmer, and you want a floral arrangement that suggests a tractor in a potato field? (This is small town, rural Washington.) Barronelle can do that. You want Goofy? She can do him better with petals than the Disney folk can with pens. You want flowers that look like animals? Angels? A fishing stream? A quilting bee? Barronelle can do that.
“It’s all in my mind,” she explains. “I just … see it, and I do it. You want to do something out of the ordinary. Something that tickles somebody’s fancy, or makes them smile.”
"Everything I have is Christ, so if He wants me to go under, then I will go under."
Which is why she’s been the go-to florist in her county for three decades, and why she’s now doing prom corsages for the children, and even grandchildren, of couples whose corsages she fashioned years ago. It’s also why a man named Rob Ingersoll kept bringing her his business.
There are two reasons why anyone with a creative bent flexes that creativity: for the sheer joy of it—and because someone else appreciates it. Lots of folks in Richland like what Barronelle can do with a handful of carnations and some delphiniums. Rob Ingersoll truly appreciated it.
“He’s been a customer for years,” Barronelle says, “and he’s a great guy. He likes different, unique things. He’d come in and say, ‘I’m having a party,’ or ‘It’s a special occasion,’ or ‘I just want something fun,’ and he’d pick out really unusual things—a vase or something—and say, ‘Do your thing.’ It was really fun and enjoyable, because I got to use my creative side and make something off-the-wall. He always loved it. That’s just the kind of relationship we had.”
The relationship was friendly enough for Barronelle to know something of Rob’s personal relationships, including the fact that he was in a same-sex relationship. It didn’t change a thing between them.
“I never ask anyone’s sexual orientation,” she says. “I’ve had designers who are gay, and I’ve had friends and other customers who [identify as] homosexual, and when they come in the shop, it doesn’t matter. Whatever color or creed or sexual preference they are, they get waited on just the same.”
But Rob was special. He understood how much Barronelle relished a challenge—and always delighted in all those little touches of creativity that made the difference between an arrangement that was “nice” and one that was wonderfully, beautifully perfect for the occasion.
So it caught Barronelle off guard, one day, when one of her store crew told her that Rob had been in earlier, looking for her. He wanted her to do the flowers for his same-sex wedding.
Same-sex ceremonies became legal in Washington in 2012, and the new law had never impacted Barronelle. Now, the question was before her. As a Christian, she holds the biblical conviction that marriage is between a man and a woman—a holy symbol of Christ’s relationship to His church. Same-sex unions, to her, do not reflect that relationship. And yet …
“It was very difficult,” she says. “My husband and I talked it over, and it basically boiled down to the fact that I could not do Rob’s wedding, because of my relationship with Christ.” She had no doubt at all, she says, about the right thing to do, but telling her friend … “it was hard.”
The next day, Rob came into the shop eager to share plans for the ceremony and what he’d be wearing and—“before he could get any further, I put my hands on his,” Barronelle remembers, “and said, ‘Rob, I am so sorry. I cannot do your wedding, because of my relationship with Christ.’
“He was very gracious. He said, ‘I understand,’ and we talked about his mom a little bit, and about how he got engaged. And then we hugged each other, and he left.”
It was a few days later that the phones began to ring. And ring. And ring. Turns out, Rob’s partner had posted on Facebook exactly what he thought of Barronelle’s refusal to do flowers for their wedding. Now, other people from across the state were dialing her shop to follow suit. They kept it up, nearly nonstop—on all five of her shop’s phone lines—for the next two weeks.
“The calls were … not very nice,” Barronelle remembers. “Very hateful, very threatening, things you could not repeat. Things I had to look up, because I had no idea what they meant.
"Little by little, they are stripping us of any thought we might have, or any difference of opinion. This is our religious freedom at stake."
“I tried to answer most of the calls, because I didn’t want to put the others through that,” she says, but most of her team rallied to help her. “The only thing we said was, ‘Thank you. We appreciate your call.’ We never argued back … just tried to be as gracious as we could.”
The calls finally tapered off a little (she still gets at least one a day); then the hate mail began pouring in. Many dozens of letters, hundreds of threatening emails—all of it angry, most of it vile, much of it vicious, unprintable. At last count, the stack was three feet high.
“What went through my mind,” Barronelle says, “was how sad it all was. People were so hateful and intolerant and misinformed. It’s just very sad that those people are that angry.”
What did not go through her mind was the possibility that she had moved, overnight, to the top of the state attorney general’s litigation target list.
At least 206 murders were committed in the State of Washington in 2012.
There were more than 2,100 rapes, 5,700 robberies, 12,200 aggravated assaults. Somehow, none of those crimes seemed to raise the rancor of state Attorney
General Bob Ferguson to anything like the intensity he focused on a great-grandmother who ran her own flower shop down in Richland.
In April 2013, Ferguson—having heard something about the Facebook post—filed a consumer protection lawsuit against Barronelle, charging her with illegally discriminating against Ingersoll and his partner on the basis of their sexual orientation. No one had asked him to do so. Not Ingersoll or his partner. Not the Washington Human Rights Commission, which is charged with initiating action in such cases. Not even the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), a group usually vigilant for the opportunity to file this kind of lawsuit.
“This is the first time in the history of the Washington Attorney General’s Office that they have done something like this,” says Dale Schowengerdt, senior counsel with Alliance Defending Freedom. “The attorney general saw this in the news, plucked it out, and intervened without request from the plaintiff.” Despite the fact that any number of other local florists could easily have provided flowers for their ceremony, Rob and his partner, urged on by the ACLU, quickly filed their own legal action. (The two lawsuits have since been combined.)
“This is definitely a political issue for the attorney general,” Schowengerdt says. “It’s unusual for him to go around the state talking so much about specific cases, but he has talked a lot about this, and when they filed the suit, he was the media point person for it.”
"The other side brought a courtroom full of attorneys. That is unheard of."
Barronelle first learned of the attorney general’s concerns in a letter that threatened her with legal action unless she immediately paid a fine, donated $5,000 to a homosexual organization, and agreed to create floral arrangements for same-sex ceremonies. Inclined to do none of those things, she knew she would need an attorney—and called the Attorney General’s Office to request time to hire one. She was at home, waiting for an answer, when a friend called to tell her that the TV news was announcing a state lawsuit against her. Before she could turn on her set, there was a knock at the door.
The man standing there served her with the attorney general’s lawsuit.
Some friends told Barronelle about Alliance Defending Freedom, and her inquiries to the organization resulted in not one, but two lawyers. The local one, Justin Bristol, is one of the ministry’s allied attorneys. He had been at his desk, he told her, “praying that God would use me for His good,” when an email popped up, telling him of Barronelle’s case. He called her immediately to enlist.
As the legal army opposing Barronelle grew, Schowengerdt came on board. He and Bristol filed suit against the attorney general on her behalf, charging him with violating the state constitution in denying her religious freedom. Schowengerdt was quickly impressed with his client.
“She has got very deep faith,” he says. “She had to make a snap decision, out of the blue, and she made the right decision. She followed her faith and followed her convictions. She could make this go away, but she has taken a stand for her faith—and for the rest of us.”
Barronelle soon found that same determination in her new attorneys.
“I was just impressed, for one, that they belonged to the Lord,” she says, “and that it was not their intent to be hateful, or make money. They’re just standing up for their beliefs, and what’s right.” Soon enough, it became apparent how much she would need their support.
“We had a status conference with the state,” Schowengerdt says, “a no-frills hearing where we are basically getting together with the parties and the judge and figuring out where we are with the case. The other side brought a courtroom full of attorneys. That is unheard of. I’ve never seen that before. They’re loaded for bear. There’s no question that the ACLU and AG’s Office are going to see this to the end. They’ll pursue this lawsuit to the nth degree—and we’ll meet them every step of the way.”
Barronelle’s attorneys weren’t the only ones to be surprised by what they were up against.
Attorneys for both sides held a deposition, during which the lawyers could ask questions of each other’s clients. That meant Barronelle was on hand, of course—and so was Rob Ingersoll. It was the first time the two had met since that last visit in the shop.
“It was awesome,” Barronelle says. “I asked my lawyer if I could hug Rob, and he said yes, and we hugged each other.” During breaks, she asked about his family, and his new business venture. “He’s worked really hard,” she says, “so I was really happy for him. It was great to see him.”
Presumably, ACLU attorneys and attorneys general don’t see a lot of hugging between the parties of their lawsuits, but Barronelle didn’t mind that. She never gave them a thought. “We were just enjoying seeing each other,” she says.
Opposing counsel may not have been prepared for how clear, unwavering, and self-effacing Barronelle’s convictions are, either.
“What is at stake is so far beyond me,” she says. “It’s our personal rights that are being taken away—our relationship with Christ. Little by little, they are stripping us of any thought we might have, or any difference of opinion. This is our religious freedom at stake. I have every right to have Christ as my Savior, and to live my life that way.
“I still don’t think of this as a big thing,” she says. “It is so simple to me: there is no discrimination. There’s nothing to dodge. Everything I have is Christ’s … so if He wants me to go under, then I’ll go under. If He wants me to succeed, I’ll succeed. I own nothing. It’s just my responsibility to be obedient and to stand up for Christ. He stood up for me.”
"Why is what I’m doing SO unusual? Why isn’t everyone doing this?"
As it happens, He’s inspired a lot of others to stand up for her, too. In the year since her decision became public, Barronelle has received phone calls, letters, emails, and encouragement from people throughout the U.S. and 66 other countries around the world. Just in Richland, churches of two different denominations have sponsored civic rallies that drew strong crowds to raise support and cheer her cause.
A pastor in India calls every week to check on her; someone on a train told him her story. A man from her own state contacted her once, offering generous financial support. He told her he himself was homosexual—but what was being done to her was wrong. A Michigan florist called to ask for prayer; she was facing similar intimidation. A church in a nearby town sent Barronelle a Bible, with highlighted verses and notes of encouragement from the whole congregation.
“God is so faithful. He has done miracle after miracle in this … things that cannot be explained,” Barronelle says. “The attorneys that He has sent me, the support people He has sent me, the prayer groups that are praying for us … it is very humbling, and very overwhelming.”
Day after day, week after week, the encouragement keeps pouring in. At a Christian school fundraiser, a roomful of people gave her a standing ovation, and tears rolled down her cheeks. “Why is what I’m doing so unusual?” she asked. “Why isn’t everyone doing this?”
As of this writing, Barronelle and her attorneys are still awaiting a ruling from a Washington judge on the state’s lawsuit against her. The timetable for her federal lawsuit against the attorney general is also still being decided. Schowengerdt says more than Barronelle’s rights are at stake.
“People for a long time have been saying that same-sex marriage and religious liberty can peacefully coexist,” he says. “Cases like this show why that’s just not the case. If Barronelle wins, it supports the fundamental right of Christians to exercise their faith, both in their private and their public lives. If she loses, it will further undermine that right.”
Whatever the outcome, Barronelle is convinced she has done the right thing.
“I’m a grain of sand in a little spot, and why God chose what He did … that is up to God,” she says. “It’s a battle, but it’s a good battle to be in, and I’m glad I’m on this side of it. It’s an opportunity for me to be obedient, to show Christ’s love, to stand up for what I believe.
“And it’s not a burden—it’s a joy,” she says. “I don’t mean that to sound ‘Pollyanna.’ It’s just that Christ has given me this peace. I’m sure there will be a lot more hate coming, but they’re not hating me, they’re hating Him.” She smiles. “And He can take care of Himself.
“My wish is that, when this is over—win or lose—we can all walk out on the courthouse steps, and Rob and I can give each other a hug. And I hope there are a whole lot of reporters there, watching … and they’ll see it, and they’ll know: there is no hate here.”
That’s the picture she sees, in her mind. Something out of the ordinary, that might make her Savior smile.