The Perfect Victim
Though news outlets differ in their coverage of the case, they tend to agree on a few particulars: Barronelle Stutzman is a 70-year-old resident of Washington state. She has been proprietor of Arlene’s Flowers for nearly forty years. For about nine of those years, she has done business with a man named Robert Ingersoll, a gay man who she considers a friend. Sometime early in 2013, when Ingersoll asked Stutzman to provide flowers for his wedding, she refused, citing her religious convictions by way of explanation.
When word of this refusal spread on social media, Washington Attorney General Robert Ferguson contacted Stutzman, warning her that she was in violation of state anti-discrimination laws. When she held firm in her decision not to provide flowers for the wedding, Ferguson filed suit against her. Shortly thereafter, Ingersoll, his partner Curt Freed, and the American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit of their own.
In June of 2013, a Washington judge combined the suits and allowed them to proceed. In January of 2015, he ruled that Stutzman had broken the law. In February she rejected a settlement offer from the state, framing her refusal as a stand on principle. Now, in April, she is heralded by many on the right as an icon of religious liberty.
It’s not hard to understand why. Though accused of discrimination—and in some corners, bigotry—Barronelle Stutzman is by all accounts a very sweet lady. For her time and place, and for the opponents of same-sex marriage, she is the perfect victim.
When I consider the case of Barronelle Stutzman, I am reminded of Rosa Parks. This is not to suggest that Stutzman is destined for fame as a civil rights hero, necessarily, or even that I believe her to be taking a bold stand for a just cause. But both figures have a certain quality that sets them apart from and above most other people, a matronly warmth that demands your empathy. In some ways, their cases run close and parallel. In others, they diverge abruptly.
Though Rosa Parks is, and forever will be, associated with her historic refusal to give up her seat on the bus, she was not the only—or even the first—person to take such a stand. Among Parks’s predecessors was a 15-year-old girl named Claudette Colvin, who was jailed for the exact same crime in the exact same year, a full nine months before Parks. Southern civil rights leaders knew about Colvin, but did not publicize her resistance. Instead they waited, and planned, and placed Rosa Parks in a position to do what Claudette Colvin had already done.
In his 2009 book, Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Justice, Phillip Hoose writes that Colvin was passed over by civil rights leaders because she didn’t fit their ideal profile. Specifically, she was young, emotional, unmarried, and, soon after, pregnant—all traits that would make her dismissible in the eyes of white America. She was, in other words, an imperfect victim.
By contrast, Rosa Parks was a picture of middle-class respectability. She was a distinguished woman, an officer in the NAACP, with just the right skin tone, hair, maturity, and gravitas. Unlike the adolescent Colvin, Parks was someone who could not be maligned or discredited. She was a sympathetic figure who clearly did not deserve the treatment she had received. She reminded you, perhaps, of your mother.
The image of a respectable Christian woman jailed for sitting on a public bus stirred the national conscience. Much like the images of police brutality that would soon turn the tide in the civil rights struggle, the Parks story presented the country with a model of moral clarity. It was quiet resistance, asserted peacefully and with dignity, only to be met by the ugly and needless violence of bigotry. In a world defined by shades of gray, her story really was black and white.
To this day, Rosa Parks remains the quintessential example of ideal victimhood. Last summer, when Michael Brown became the face of a new movement against racialized police brutality, some wary pundits cautioned that Brown was not Parks; and indeed, he was not. Still, to concede that Brown—like Colvin—was a flawed human being is not to concede that a social problem doesn’t exist. It is to acknowledge that, in most cases, political mobilization demands an especially sympathetic face.
In 2013, when Barronelle Stutzman found herself on the receiving end of two lawsuits, she obtained fast and enthusiastic support from the Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), a conservative legal outfit that specializes in religious liberty cases. Not only did the ADF file a counter-suit on Stutzman’s behalf, they set to work presenting her story to the public. If you visit the ADF website today, you will find a page set aside for Stutzman, recounting her story, explaining the injustice of her situation, and requesting donations to support her case. In the middle of the page you will see her quoted, summarizing the gravity of the situation as she understands it:
“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.”
There is also a very well produced video featuring Stutzman, in which she and her legal counsel take their appeals directly to the web-browsing public. Like almost every sympathetic article on Stutzman, the video emphasizes its subject’s grandmotherly ethos. It opens with her seated at a kitchen table, soft piano playing in the background, shuffling through letters of support that she has received from around the nation and, in a few cases, the world. It then cuts to the sales floor of Arlene’s Flowers, where Stutzman explains her motivation for going into business.
“I don’t consider the people who walk in the door customers,” she says. “They’re just people who want something to please somebody else and that’s my job.”
Kristen Waggoner, Stutzman’s ADF attorney, then narrates the tale of her client’s relationship with Robert Ingersoll. Speaking softly and seated in front of a warm fireplace, Waggoner sounds very much like a nostalgic high school friend. Given the relationship that Stutzman and Ingersoll had developed over the years, she explains, Ingersoll naturally wanted Stutzman to provide the flowers for his wedding.
“It was a real struggle to decide what to do with that,” Stutzman says. “My husband and I talked it over and, as much as I love Rob, I just couldn’t be a part of that. If I did Rob’s wedding it would be from my heart, because I think he’s a really special person. And I would want to make it really special for him.”
Waggoner then reports on the danger Stutzman faces, noting that “she is at great risk,” facing the possibility of losing both her business and her home. Further, she has become the frequent recipient of vicious hate mail, totaling in the “thousands of pages.”
Through it all, though, Stutzman persists, willing to endure trials and tribulations to remain faithful to her God. The ADF production hits all the right notes, and hits them all softly. By the end of the seven-minute video, a picture has emerged. Barronelle Stutzman appears as an unlikely but kind and dignified martyr—a respectable middle-class woman against the government, against the gays, against the world.
You might imagine her seated at the front of a bus, purse on her lap, quietly refusing to stand.
But Parks and Stutzman remain separated by the complexities of detail. For one thing, Parks came to fame representing a political and social out-group, as a member of a racially distinct and distinctly oppressed underclass. Despite the best efforts of the Alliance Defending Freedom and comparable organizations, Christian conservatives cannot be made analogous in this respect.
In fact, one might argue that Robert Ingersoll draws the stronger comparison here, in that his complaint springs from within a history of struggle. Same-sex wedding controversies are predicated on the existence of same-sex weddings, after all, and these were illegal in Washington state right up until 2012. In a sense, then, the friendship that blossomed between Stutzman and Ingersoll prior to that year was at least somewhat reliant on the prohibition of the latter’s union. As long as there was no question of Ingersoll getting married, there was no question of Stutzman violating her convictions.
Parks took her stand over the denial of a service—namely, bus service on an equal footing with white people. Because she was a member of a racial underclass, and because she was not receiving the same treatment that members of the dominant group received, she resorted to civil disobedience to claim some sense of equality. Though Stutzman has engaged in a principled violation of the law, she has done so for the right to deny service, rather to ensure the provision of service equally.
Ingersoll is the one calling for equal treatment under the law, based in the belief that all citizens are entitled to a fundamental standard of equality. Stutzman’s claim that a religious business should enjoy the right to refuse service to certain clients retains an eerie resemblance to Rosa Parks’s rhetoric, but not on Rosa Parks’s side of the question. Stutzman’s retort that there are dozens of other flower shops in the area who would provide service seems fair, but ultimately beside the point. One suspects that the students who sat-in at segregated lunch counters in the 1950s may have been able to find better accommodations elsewhere. But anti-discrimination activism, as a rule, is never content with elsewhere.
On this point, her lawyer’s assurance that she had long employed, and done business with, gay customers may actually have the opposite of its intended effect. It could be argued, for instance, that providing flowers to gay customers makes one a party to gay relationships and sex, which are often considered sinful regardless of marital status. That Stutzman apparently did not consider this to be a violation of her Christian faith is indicative of how arbitrary these judgments can be. If other business owners decide to draw the line somewhere prior to marriage—refusing to provide services to any gay customers, for instance—then the religious liberty defense would continue to provide a sort of legal trump card.
And as students of the civil rights movement can testify, religious liberty complaints were around in Rosa Parks’s day, too.
As same-sex marriage has quickly spread throughout the nation, courts have just as quickly begun to field complaints from religious objectors. Among these are a photographer in New Mexico, a T-shirt printer in Kentucky, and of course, a florist in Washington state. Each suggests that doing business is a mode of religious expression, and that who one does business with—or how—ought to be protected by the First Amendment. And I’ve found that one quality seems to recur again and again among them. Like Barronelle Stutzman, they are all, by all accounts, extraordinarily nice.
But therein lies a problem—a problem familiar to discussions of race as well as sex. The prevailing assumption today is that discrimination is a practice specific to bad people, to those unreconstructed bigots who spout hateful slurs in casual conversation. This view would equate character with conduct, making it impossible for kind people to do unlawful things. Thus the most effective defense of these individuals is to let them speak for themselves—about their faith, their hope, and above all, about the love they feel even for those they would not willingly serve.
The difficult truth of the matter is that sweetness and decency are not actually relevant to cases like these, and religion is at best tangential. We are all potential discriminators, including the friendliest and the most devout, and discrimination is a social ill, whether it is born of hate or something more banal.
Contrary to Stutzman, anti-discrimination laws cannot hope to strip away thoughts or force opinions. Nor can they intercede between anyone and God. Their function is to ensure that members of minority groups—including racial and sexual minorities—are not treated like second-class citizens. That’s all. And contrary to the ADF, being compelled to treat minorities as equals does not amount to a second-class citizenship of its own.
This episode began as a disagreement between a small business owner and one of her regulars, but it quickly became a struggle of ideologies, featuring national players in a high-stakes showdown. One wonders whether the people at the center of this conflict have ever second-guessed their decisions, or questioned whether their lives and identities are now the property of lawyers with causes.
Maybe Robert Ingersoll sometimes goes to sleep wishing he hadn’t filed a lawsuit against his friend. (Based on the recent settlement offer to Arlene’s Flowers, one suspects Washington State Attorney General Bob Ferguson has lost his appetite for fighting sweet old ladies, too.) Likewise, maybe Barronelle Stutzman has occasionally doubted her equation of floral arrangement with moral endorsement. But then again, maybe not. Ultimately these matters may fall to the Supreme Court to decide.
In the meanwhile, the public will be asked, once again, to take sides. If we must, we should remember that, while discrimination is not always the hallmark of hatred, neither is it always the face of innocence, purity, and faith. Distinguishing these with sincerity is often a formidable task, but it is also, thankfully, unnecessary.
In the end, civil society demands little more than fair and equitable treatment of one to another—perfection, imperfection, and all.
Eric C. Miller is Assistant Professor of Communication Studies at Bloomsburg University of Pennsylvania and a contributor at Religion Dispatches. Visit his site or follow him on Twitter @ecm100.