In what has become an increasingly common story, Barronelle Stutzman, a 70-year-old florist in Washington State, chose not to help two male customers pretend that they were marrying each other because she deemed such assistance a violation of her Christian faith. According to The Daily Signal:
In March 2013, when Robert Ingersoll asked Stutzman to design floral arrangements for his same-sex wedding to Curt Freed, she declined, citing her Christian faith.
“I put my hand on his and said, ‘I’m sorry Rob, I can’t do your wedding because of my relationship with Jesus Christ,’” Stutzman said. “We talked a little bit, we talked about his mom [walking him down the aisle]…we hugged and he left.”
Stutzman enjoyed a close relationship with Ingersoll, serving him for many years, and never expected what would happen next.
What happened next was a pair of lawsuits—one filed by Washington State Attorney General Bob Ferguson and the other filed by the ACLU on behalf of Ingersoll and Freed. After all, this was a massive setback for the tolerant couple who informed the court that the cost of driving to another florist amounted to a whopping $7.91.
The cost to Stutzman has unfortunately proven much higher. On top of the $7.91 fine decided by the court, there is an additional $2000 fine imposed by the state. But it doesn’t end there, because it is $2000 per violation of Washington’s anti-discrimination laws. According to Fox News, all this publicity has lead to a number of lavender fascists flooding Stutzman’s shop with requests for flowers for gay pretend-weddings just for the sake of punishing her for her refusal to participate in their lifestyle choices. Of course, even these costs are dwarfed by the legal fees the whole fiasco has forced on her—fees reaching into seven digit figures.
It’s tragic that liberal America’s sense of justice has forgotten so basic a concept as proportionality. The left’s response to any offense is now a knee-jerk attempt to destroy the offender. The material harm to Ingersoll and Freed (if indeed ‘harm’ is even an appropriate term) was valued at a mere $7.91. How many different ways could they have reacted to it? If Ingersoll responded to Stutzman’s refusal by taking his business elsewhere, it would be reasonable and perfectly appropriate. If he and his partner warned their friends against doing business with her, it would be understandable. Organizing a large boycott would perhaps stray into the realm of vindictiveness. But relentlessly pursuing her through the courts until she loses her home, business, and everything she’s worked for over a matter of $7.91? That is an unconscionable level of venom and spite. These are kind of tender mercies Christians will enjoy if we fail to protect religious liberty.
The root of these kinds of injustices is the fact that Americans have acquired the confused belief that freedom of religion depends on an official religious neutrality in the public square. In other words, for everybody to be free, nobody can be allowed to actually act as though their religion is true whenever they might encounter someone who does not share their creed. Accordingly, our president talks about “freedom of worship” which amounts to nothing more than the option of going into a private building and participating in a liturgy exclusively with like-minded believers. But that is by no means what religion is. It is the nature of a god to be ultimate—to be a concern that trumps all others. If this is the case, then religious neutrality is an incoherent ideal, for gods demand public behavior as well. As J. Budziszewski has often pointed out, Religious neutrality cannot be practiced consistently in public or otherwise. If our freedom to practice religion by following a god is to mean anything at all, then it must extend into our public lives as well. It is for precisely this reason that the beating heart of religious freedom in America is the free exercise thereof—a public right granted to everyone rather than a prohibition that restricts the faithful.
The U.S. Constitution guarantees this free exercise of religion to American citizens. Its a freedom that has lead people of a multitude of creeds to come here seeking refuge from persecution and death. It is a freedom that is supposed to protect people like Stutzman from the bigots who want to take away everything she has because of her beliefs. It has become increasingly apparent that this centuries-old freedom that is so central to American identity is incompatible with contemporary anti-discrimination laws—laws that merely prevent the horror of having to drive to another florist. If the rainbow lobby wants to force Americans to choose between these two protections, then the choice should be clear to anyone who is not obsessed with cutting out a pound of Christian flesh.