June 28th, 2013
06:19 PM ET
By Daniel Burke, CNN Belief Blog Co-Editor
(CNN) – With its ivy-covered entrance and Teddy Bear bouquets, Arlene’s Flowers seems an unlikely spot to trigger a culture-war skirmish.
Until recently, the Richland, Washington, shop was better known for its artistic arrangements than its stance on same-sex marriage.
But in March, Barronelle Stutzman, the shop’s 68-year-old proprietress, refused to provide wedding flowers for a longtime customer who was marrying his partner. Washington state legalized same-sex marriage in December.
An ardent evangelical, Stutzman said she agonized over the decision but couldn’t support a wedding that her faith forbids.
“I was not discriminating at all,” she said. “I never told him he couldn’t get married. I gave him recommendations for other flower shops.”
Washington state Attorney General Bob Ferguson disagreed, and filed a consumer protection lawsuit against Arlene’s Flowers. The ACLU also sued on behalf of the customer, Robert Ingersoll, who has said Stutzman’s refusal “really hurt, because it was someone I knew.”
Among conservative Christians, Stutzman has become a byword - part cautionary tale and part cause celebre.
Websites call her a freedom fighter. Tributes fill Arlene’s Facebook page. Donations to her legal defense fund pour in from as far away as Texas and Arkansas.
“For some reason, her case has made a lot of people of faith worry,” said Stutzman’s lawyer, Dale Schowengerdt of the Alliance Defending Freedom, a conservative legal group.
Those anxieties have only increased, conservative Christians say, since the Supreme Court struck down part of the Defense of Marriage Act and opened the door to gay marriage in California.
Taking a line from Justice Antonin Scalia's sharp dissent, Southern Baptist scholar Albert Mohler said it’s only a matter of time "before the other shoe drops" – and the high court legalizes same-sex marriage from coast to coast.
“Christians will have to think hard — and fast — about these issues and our proper response,” Mohler wrote on Wednesday.
“We will have to learn an entire new set of missional skills as we seek to remain faithful to Christ in this fast-changing culture.”
His fellow Southern Baptist Russell Moore put the matter more succinctly.
“Same-sex marriage is coming to your community.”
`The debate is over'
Well before the Supreme Court’s rulings, many conservative Christians said they saw the writing - or the poll numbers - on the wall.
Survey after survey shows increasing support for same-sex marriage, especially among young Americans. That includes many religious believers.
Most Catholics and mainline Protestants, not to mention many Jews, support same-sex relationships, according to surveys. The bells of Washington National Cathedral pealed in celebration on Thursday.
Even among those who oppose gay marriage, many think it’s a losing battle.
Seventy percent of white evangelicals believe that legal recognition for gay nuptials is inevitable, according to a June poll by the Pew Research Center, though just 22 percent favor it.
“The gay marriage debate is over,” said Jonathan Merritt, an evangelical writer on faith and culture. “Statistically, all the numbers move in one direction.”
Young Christians have grown up in a far more diverse culture than their forebears, Merritt noted, and many have befriended gays and lesbians.
Pew found that more than 90 percent of Americans overall personally know someone who is gay or lesbian, a 30 percent increase since 1993.
“It’s far easier to wage war against an agenda than it is to battle a friend,” Merritt said.
At the same time, many conservative young Christians say they’re weary of the culture wars, and of seeing their communities labeled “judgmental.”
When Christian researchers at the Barna Group asked Americans aged 16-29 what words best describe Christianity, the top response was “anti-homosexual.” That was true of more than 90 percent of non-Christians and 80 percent of churchgoers, according to Barna.
Tired of being told the country is slouching toward Gomorrah, many young Christians have simply tuned out the angry prophets of earlier generations, evangelical leaders say.
“The shrill angry voices of retrenchment are no longer getting a broad hearing either in the culture at large or in the evangelical community,” Merritt said.
But the battle over same-sex marriage is far from over, said Brian Brown, president of the National Organization for Marriage.
“I don’t believe most Christians are going to give up the fight,” said Brown, who is Catholic. He said his movement includes many young evangelical and Orthodox Christians.
“And they are more energized than ever.”
Love thy gay neighbors
Energized or not, conservative Christians must prepare for the moral dilemmas posed by the country’s growing acceptance of same-sex marriage, said Moore, the new president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission.
“Is Your Church Ready for the Marriage Revolution?” Moore asked, while promoting a special session on homosexuality at the Southern Baptist Convention’s annual meeting in Houston in June.
Many evangelical pastors have seen homosexuality as a distant culture-war battle that’s fought far from the doors of the churches, Moore said.
Now, it’s as close as their front pews.
“I think it’s not so much that churches haven’t wanted to talk about it,” he said, “but they haven’t recognized how much the culture has changed around them.”
The first step, said Moore, is learning to defend traditional marriage without demonizing gays and lesbians.
Walking through Washington’s Union Station last Thursday, Moore said he saw several lesbian couples kissing in celebration of the Supreme Court rulings.
“If we can’t empathize with what’s going on in their hearts and minds, we’re not going to be able to love and respect them.”
Then come a host of secondary questions: How should conservative pastors minister to same-sex couples? Should Christians attend same-sex weddings? Should florists like Barronelle Stutzman's agree to work with gay couples?
`Don't give in'
In the 17 years she’s owned Arlene’s Flowers, Stutzman said, she’s worked with a number of gay colleagues.
“It really didn’t matter if they were gay, or blue or green, if they were creative and could do the job,” she said.
Stutzman suspects that some of her eight children privately don’t agree with her on homosexuality, even as they publicly support her decision.
Online, Stutzman has been called a bigot, and worse.
She said she’s lost at least two weddings because of her refusal to provide services for the same-sex marriage.
Conservative activists say her case is the first of what will surely be many more, as gay marriage spreads across the country.
As she gets ready to face a judge, the silver-haired florist offered some advice for fellow evangelicals.
“Don’t give in. If you have to go down for Christ, what better person to go down for?”
About this blog
The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.