The owner of a flower shop in Washington who denied service to a gay couple is being sued for violating the state's consumer protection laws that prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation.

What makes this lawsuit very different is the person behind it: None other than State Attorney General Bob Ferguson.

"As Attorney General, it is my job to enforce the laws of the state of Washington," Ferguson said in a statement. "Under the Consumer Protection Act, it is unlawful to discriminate against customers based on sexual orientation. If a business provides a product or service to opposite-sex couples for their weddings, then it must provide same sex couples the same product or service."

Barronelle Stutzman, who owns Arlene's Flowers and Gifts in Richland, earned herself headlines last month after she turned down a request from longtime customer Rob Ingersoll to provide flowers for his wedding because Ingersoll is gay.

"When it came to doing his wedding, I said, ‘I could not do it because of my relationship with Jesus Christ,'" she wrote on the store's Facebook page.

This was Stutzman's first denial of service in her 37 years as a florist.

"It really hurt because it was somebody I knew," said Ingersoll, who had been coming to Arlene's on a regular basis for nine years.

Ferguson, the AG, says Stutzman was given an opportunity [PDF] to change her mind before the lawsuit was filed [PDF], but she declined.

With the "unusual legal maneuver" now in place, Slog provides some context:

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.

Though Washington voters approved the legalization of same-sex marriage back in November, Arlene's home county of Benton in conservative eastern Washington roundly rejected the referendum, with 63% voting against it.

Stutzman's lawyers have already vowed to defend their client's right to discriminate all the way to the federal court system, saying in a letter to the AG [PDF] that "a number of national non-profit organizations . . . are ready for a fight."

One of those organizations, NOM, has already released a statement, alleging that, "like clockwork, those who disagree with gay marriage are being fined and forced out of the public square — by the state-imposed redefinition of marriage."

On the flipside, the ACLU has said it is ready to file its own lawsuit against Stutzman unless she stops discriminating against gay people.

"Your refusal to sell flowers to Mr. Ingersoll and Mr. Freed for their wedding has hurt them very deeply," said ACLU attorney Michael R. Scott. "It is a disturbing reminder of the history of discrimination and disparate treatment that they and other gay men and women have experienced over the years."

[photo via SeattlePI, screengrab via KEPR-TV]