A former first lady once spoke eloquently about notions of truth and fair play. She told the nation that “the truth matters” and cautioned that “success doesn’t count unless you earn it fair and square.”
If Michelle Obama’s words are true, then Washington florist Barronelle Stutzman still has a chance at success.
This 72-year-old grandmother is appealing her case to the U.S. Supreme Court, asking it to vindicate her First Amendment freedoms, and the freedoms of countless other creative professionals, including Jack Phillips, whose case the Court will hear next term. If the Court rejects her petition, Barronelle faces the loss of her business and everything she owns, but she’s decided it’s worth the risk. Because she believes truth matters. And because she hopes the truth will set her free.
Forget the “right side of history” and focus on the right side of truth
The other side also ostensibly believes that the truth matters. But unlike Barronelle, the truth is not their ally, because they recognize that the truth about Barronelle won’t bring them success. They understand that when it comes to Barronelle, playing “fair and square” will get them nowhere.
So those who oppose Barronelle’s artistic and expressive freedoms justify their position with a crisp and cutting narrative (peppered by nonsensical references to the “right side of history”). They claim she is anti-gay, a bigot who “discriminated against [a] gay couple” by refusing to serve them. They use this narrative not because it is true (far from it), but because they believe it to be effective.
It has been effective enough that too many people—including even informed and passionate advocates for Barronelle—have failed to fully understand her position. So in an effort to make it abundantly clear, consider the following two scenarios.
Scenario 1: A same-sex couple enters Barronelle’s shop, arm in arm. They approach her and say, “We would love to purchase several dozen cut flowers from you, which we plan to use in the decorations for our wedding.”
Scenario 2: A same-sex couple enters Barronelle’s shop, arm in arm. They greet Barronelle, point to a lovely floral arrangement and exclaim, “This would be perfect for the spot where we will recite our vows.”
Before we examine the truth, let’s acknowledge the spin. Groups opposing Barronelle have suggested she would refuse to serve them; after all, they say, she’s a bigot who “discriminate[s] against gay couple[s].” They are wrong.
In both scenarios, Barronelle’s response would be affirmative. To those who know her, this comes as no surprise. A rose always smells like a rose, and Barronelle has always treated all her customers with the same grace, enthusiasm, and love. This includes her LGBT customers…and her LGBT employees for that matter. Of course, this truthful narrative is most unhelpful to those who seek to mandate a society of “tolerance”—one that demands conformity in belief and action. For them, Barronelle’s consistent kindness to those in the LGBT community is an inconvenient truth indeed.
An exercise of conscience, not an act of discrimination
Barronelle never has—and never would—refuse to serve someone who identifies as LGBT. Yet she faces the loss of everything she owns because her personal exercise of conscience has been recast as personified discrimination. Barronelle is soft spoken and kind, and yet powerful activists point a finger at people like her and say, “We’re going to punish the wicked.”
Rob Ingersoll was a long-time client and friend; he identifies as LGBT, and Barronelle designed dozens of custom floral arrangements for him over the span of nearly a decade, including for special occasions like birthdays and anniversaries. But when Rob asked Barronelle to create custom floral arrangements for his wedding, Barronelle gently declined. Barronelle’s response, in her words:
I took his hands and said, “I’m sorry I can’t do your wedding because of my relationship with Jesus Christ.” Rob said he understood, and that he hoped his mom would walk him down the aisle, but he wasn’t sure. We talked about how he got engaged and why they decided to get married after all these years. He asked me for the names of other flower shops. I gave him the names of three floral artists that I knew would do a good job, because I knew he would want something very special. We hugged and he left.
Barronelle’s faith teaches that marriage is between one man and one woman, and to use her artistic abilities to create floral arrangements celebrating a same-sex marriage would violate her conscience. For that reason alone, she chose not to create custom arrangements in celebration of a particular event. But Barronelle never has—and never would—refuse to serve Robert Ingersoll. She served him for nearly a decade, and she considered him a friend. In fact, she still does.
A return to truth and fair play
Michelle Obama’s words at the 2012 Democratic National Convention were widely praised. Unfortunately, many who cheered her words about truth and fair play now seek to conceal the truth about Barronelle Stutzman. The Supreme Court can affirm that the truth does matter by taking Barronelle’s case. And it can set her free by protecting her freedom of conscience.
In a free and tolerant society, anything less would be uncivilized.
James Gottry is legal counsel with Alliance Defending Freedom, which represents Barronelle Stutzman and Jack Phillips in their respective cases.