A few short weeks ago, Garden Guy was just a mom-and-pop landscaping business that promoted itself as "making Houston beautiful since 1991" and promised to treat its customers with respect and honesty.

Since then, though, the business has been vilified around the world as a bunch of bigots because its Christian conservative owners refused to do work for a gay couple.

Michael Lord and Gary Lackey, a gay couple requesting bids for a landscaping job at their new house, received a polite — and, well, honest — e-mail from Sabrina Farber, a co-owner of Garden Guy: "I need to tell you that we cannot meet with you because we choose not to work for homosexuals."

Stunned, Lackey forwarded the e-mail to 200 friends, asking them not to patronize Garden Guy and urging them to pass the word on to friends and family. "I'm still shocked by the ignorance that exists in today's society," Lackey said in his e-mail.

And word was indeed passed on — as fast as the Web could carry it.

Within days, the e-mail had been forwarded to thousands of people around the world, and quickly became the subject of heated and often ugly debates on the Internet. Because of the furor, a professional association of landscapers created a nondiscrimination policy.

A forum on the Garden Guy Web site, normally reserved for discussions about landscaping and shrubbery, was bombarded with angry comments and venomous attacks from as far away as Australia.

Some people attacked the Farbers' beliefs, threatened the couple and their five children, and said they ought to be sodomized. Others condemned gays as sinners headed toward damnation.

Farber, whose company's Web site has long included Biblical quotes and a link to a Web site that opposes gay marriage, said she was shocked by the reaction.

"It was just our intent to uphold our rights as small business owners to choose our clientele," she said. "All the hate, the threats of sodomizing my children, the threats of me being murdered, came out because of a very businesslike straightforward e-mail I sent. The crowd of tolerance and diversity is not so tolerant."

But Farber said she and her husband have also gotten hundreds of calls and messages offering encouragement and have been touched by that. "We just cried. We have been through so much," Farber said. "We become accidental crusaders for Christ."

Lackey and Lord did not return calls from the Associated Press.

"Imagine if it had been a black or Hispanic couple that they wouldn't provide services to. It's really bad," said Jack Valinski, a Houston gay activist. "A lot of gay couples have kids, live in the suburbs and have neighbors that are straight. Yet, we still have instances like this. There is still always that underlying discrimination we all have to deal with."

Houston, unlike Austin and Dallas, has no ordinance prohibiting businesses from discriminating on the basis of sexual orientation.

Farber's e-mail reached the Harrisburg, Pa., offices of the Association of Professional Landscape Designers, which said that the Farbers were misrepresenting themselves as current members of the group and no longer belong.

After receiving hundreds of outraged calls and e-mails, the 1,200-member association issued a statement criticizing the Farbers and created a nondiscrimination policy.

"It has come to our attention that a former member has declined a professional engagement on the grounds of the prospective clients' sexual orientation. This conduct does not conform to the policy and practice of APLD," the organization said.