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Consumer protection lawsuit filed against florist who refused services for a gay couple’s wedding


By Scottie Thomaston

In March, a florist in Washington state refused to sell flowers to a gay couple for their wedding, telling the couple that marriage is between a man and a woman. This week, Washington’s attorney general filed a lawsuit against the florist. According to the complaint, because the florist violated the state’s anti-discrimination law in a place of public accommodation, the conduct also violates the state’s consumer protection law.

According to the report, Attorney General Bob Ferguson’s lawsuit is unusual:

The case is set to emerge as the first major test of anti-discrimination protections since Washington State voters legalized same-sex marriage last fall. It is also a rare—if not unprecedented—instance of the government initiating a discrimination suit. With the florist’s lawyers apparently itching for a fight, the case seems poised to reach the state supreme court, or even federal courts, as a test of conservative legal defenses in the name of religious liberty and moral conscience.

Ferguson acknowledged in an interview with The Stranger today that filing the lawsuit this way is unprecedented; anti-discrimination suits must be brought by the Washington State Human Rights Commission or the aggrieved party. But as of this week, neither had taken action. Ferguson says he has legal authority to file the suit as a consumer protection case because the alleged discrimination occurred “in a consumer setting.”

“Right now she’s getting away with it, and that sends the wrong message to all the businesses around the state,” said Ferguson.

This case is similar to the Elane Photography case in New Mexico, in which a business refused to photograph a same-sex commitment ceremony, possibly violating the state’s anti-discrimination law.

In both cases, the businesses argue that their activities are a form of “expression”, under the First Amendment, and not commercial activity. But the Washington case is unique, in that the state has a Human Rights Commission tasked with handling discrimination claims. Instead of involving the Commission – which has authority to file a discrimination lawsuit – the attorney general is treating the lawsuit as a consumer protection issue, an area in which he does have authority to file a lawsuit. As the report points out, this could end up as a major test case on “freedom of conscience”, a defense that conservatives have used in opposition to anti-discrimination laws.

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