Once, there were two business owners — a restaurateur and a florist. They both had a brief conversation with a customer, after which firestorms of controversy and commentary erupted. One of the biggest questions: How do rights of conscience apply to business owners?
Much ink has been spilled separately on the stories of Stephanie Wilkinson and Barronelle Stutzman. A few writers have compared them to each other. But in most ways, Stephanie and Barronelle’s stories deserve to be contrasted.
Last Friday night, business owner Stephanie Wilkinson decided to eject White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders from The Red Hen, Wilkinson’s small Shenandoah farm-to-table restaurant. Reports indicate that Sarah joined her already-seated party. Cheese plates had been broken into. Main course orders already placed with the kitchen staff.
But then, at the request of her staff, Wilkinson drove to her restaurant to verify the press secretary’s identity, confer with staff, and make a final decision: Sarah Huckabee Sanders was not welcome. She would not be served. Because of who she was and choices she had made, she was asked to leave without dinner.
A brief glance at commentary suggests that many progressives support the restaurant owner’s right to turn away this customer, based upon the owner’s deeply held beliefs. Some even claim that God is on their side, and that it is morally appropriate to let President Trump’s Cabinet members know "they’re not welcome anymore, anywhere."
Ironically, Barronelle Stutzman has been accused of similar inhospitality and animus to customers, but those accusations miss the mark. Here’s why:
Barronelle is a 73-year-old grandmother and floral artist who serves all customers. She doesn’t turn people away because of who they are or how they identify. She explains herself best: "I think the worst part is when they say I won't serve gay people. That’s just not true. I’ve never discriminated against anyone in my life."
For her entire career, Barronelle has served and employed people who identify as LGBT. In fact, she served Rob Ingersoll — one of the men who is suing her — for nearly 10 years before gently telling him that she wouldn’t be able to design floral arrangements celebrating his wedding to his same-sex partner, Curt Freed. She took his hand in hers, explained why she couldn't agree to his request, and gave him the names of three other florists who would do a great job for him.
Barronelle did not turn Rob away because of who he is. She often says she would welcome him back into her shop — and her life — at a moment's notice. She declined the request because of what she was asked to celebrate about marriage.
Although I've focused on two business owners, there are others whose stories could be told, the most notable of which is Colorado cake artist Jack Phillips. Much like Barronelle, Jack declined to create a custom wedding cake celebrating a same-sex marriage because he could not in good conscience violate his religious beliefs about marriage. Earlier this month, in a 7-2 ruling, the U.S. Supreme Court said that the government was wrong to punish Jack for simply living out his faith.
Many people argued that the decision in Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Rights Commission protected only Jack, and that it was only a narrow win. But Monday, the Supreme Court indicated that the Masterpiece Cakeshop ruling actually has something to say about Barronelle’s case. It did so by vacating the Washington Supreme Court’s decision against her and instructing that court to reconsider her lawsuit.
Similar to Jack, Barronelle has faced government hostility. The state of Washington, acting through its attorney general, has targeted her in her personal capacity, threatening her personal assets, including her life savings. The attorney general did all this despite failing to prosecute a Washington business owner who berated and discriminated against Christian customers.
So back to the restaurant owner and the apparent double-standard between the applause she’s receiving and the scorn that Barronelle faces: It is illiberal and hypocritical to praise a progressive restaurateur for banning customers because of who they are while denouncing a conservative Christian floral artist for declining her a longtime customer’s request for arrangements celebrating an event with deep religious significance.
This country should be big enough and tolerant enough for both business owners to live out their consciences. Whether that happens remains to be seen. This tale is still being told.
Jessica Prol Smith is senior news writer and editor for Alliance Defending Freedom, which represents Jack Phillips and Barronelle Stutzman.