Arlene's Flowers case still stalled

Geoff Folsom, Tri-City HeraldJuly 10, 2014 

State Attorney General Bob Ferguson said Thursday that the U.S. Supreme Court's recent Hobby Lobby decision won't impact a case involving Arlene's Flowers of Richland.

The court ruled June 30 that the Hobby Lobby craft store chain can refuse to comply with the federal health care mandate to provide birth control to employees based on religious grounds.

The Hobby Lobby case was based on the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act passed in 1993, Ferguson said, and is different than the case involving Arlene's Flowers.

"It's quite clear on Arlene's Flowers there is no broader impact," Ferguson told the Herald's editorial board. "Our case is based on the consumer protection law and anti-discrimination law."

Ferguson's office sued Arlene's owner Barronelle Stutzman after she declined to create flower arrangements in March 2013 for the wedding of Robert Ingersoll and Curt Freed, citing her religious views. The couple also filed a separate lawsuit.

The Arlene's Flowers case remains stalled. And with the appointment of Judge Sal Mendoza Jr., who had been assigned to it in Benton-Franklin Superior Court, to the federal bench, it could be a while before it is heard, Ferguson said.

A spokeswoman for Gov. Jay Inslee said after Mendoza resigned June 17 that it should take two to three months to fill his position.

"I wish I could report that things are going to move along quickly, but it's ready for the new judge to hear," Ferguson said.

Whichever side prevails at the Superior Court level, Ferguson expects the loser to appeal the decision to the state Supreme Court, he said.

Ferguson also told the editorial board that he expects an announcement on discussions involving Hanford's court-enforced consent decree as early as today.

A 40-day dispute resolution period expired June 2, which allowed either the state or the federal Department of Energy to ask a federal judge to intervene. After that, the two sides agreed not to seek court involvement until June 27.

The state is in the process of deciding whether to ask for additional time, Ferguson said.

"I think the conversations have been constructive," he said, declining to elaborate.

Kennewick attorney George Cicotte, a candidate for the congressional seat being vacated by retiring Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Pasco, was part of a Rotary group that Ferguson met with Thursday.

"The feeling I got from (Ferguson) is that it's not going to be resolved in the mediation process," Cicotte said.

Ferguson also addressed the two gun-related initiatives that will be on the November ballot in Washington. One of them, Initiative 594, would require new background checks on gun sales, while Initiative 591 would protect gun rights.

Should both measures pass, it would then be up to the state Legislature to resolve the differences, Ferguson said. Should it fail to act, it would go to the courts. Courts in other states have dealt with similar situations and based decisions on which initiative gets the most votes.

The Legislature could again consider a bill that would allow for remote testimony before legislative committees, which would give people in other parts of the state improved ability to being heard in Olympia, Ferguson said.

"I think it might be the right year," he said. "There's been a bit of movement going on with the legislature as well."

-- Geoff Folsom: 509-582-1543; gfolsom@tricityherald.com; Twitter: @GeoffFolsom

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