Hundreds packed a college theater Tuesday to hear arguments in the case of a Richland flower shop and the same-sex couple who say they were discriminated against when the owner refused to make arrangements for their wedding.
Barronelle Stutzman, who owns Arlene’s Flowers, cited her relationship with Jesus Christ when she turned down the request of longtime customer Robert Ingersoll and his partner, Curt Freed.
On Tuesday, after 3 1/2 years of legal wrangling, Stutzman, Ingersoll and Freed found themselves seated in the front row before the state Supreme Court.
The nine justices held court at Bellevue College as part of their “on the road” outreach efforts.
Stutzman is appealing the 2015 ruling of a Benton County Superior Court judge that she violated the state’s anti-discrimination law and the Consumer Protection Act.
“A Christian floral designer shouldn’t be forced to create custom floral designs for a wedding that’s not between a man and a woman,” said Stutzman’s lawyer, Kristen K. Waggoner of Alliance Defending Freedom.
Waggoner argued that arranging flowers is artistic expression protected under the First Amendment. Stutzman — a Southern Baptist — would have been more than happy to sell prearranged flowers out of the cooler because that was “not custom expression,” she said.
Some people inside the 300-seat Carlton Theater held white paper flowers for Stutzman.
People gathered outside after the hour-long arguments, with a majority of the crowd shouting “Barronelle” as they held up signs saying “Freedom to Create” and “Let Freedom Bloom.”
They mixed with a handful of demonstrators who held rainbow flags and umbrellas and chanted “Let queers bloom.” Some were LGBTQ students from Bellevue College.
The court did not decide the case on Tuesday. Written opinions usually are released about three to six months after oral arguments.
Shortly into Waggoner’s argument, Justice Steven Gonzalez asked if a new agency of government is needed “to decide which beliefs are sincerely held and which are simply bigotry?”
The question drew some laughs from the audience.
Waggoner said Stutzman’s claim hinges on whether she’s engaging in free expression, and not that her belief is religious. She added that the right of free expression extends to both the corporation and to Stutzman, who’s been the owner for 40 years.
Justice Charles Wiggins questioned just what message is being expressed when Stutzman creates her floral designs.
“The message that’s being expressed is tailored to the couple. It’s unique to that couple, the themes that they have for their wedding, as well as components of their relationship …,” Waggoner said. “I think the important point that your honor mentioned is there doesn’t need to be a particularized message to be considered protected under the First Amendment.”
She noted how Jackson Pollock’s work is overpriced paintings, yet abstract art that may mean nothing at all to some “is still protected because it’s visual art and it’s artistic expression.”
In this case, the flowers are designed to celebrate, and Ingersoll has said that’s why he wanted the flowers at his wedding to create a mood and a theme, Waggoner argued.
Attorney George Ahrend, who also represents Stutzman, added that the floral request came only two months after Washington began recognizing freedom to marry for gay couples. No one at the time knew that this interaction would be affected by the law against discrimination or the Consumer Protection Act, he said.
A lawsuit was filed in April 2013 by the state Attorney General’s Office after it sent Stutzman a letter asking her to follow the law.
Ingersoll and Freed followed with their own suit, filed by the American Civil Liberties Union and the ACLU of Washington.
The Washington Law Against Discrimination guarantees the right to be free from discrimination in public accommodations based on race, creed, national origin, gender or sexual orientation.
Attorney General Bob Ferguson on Tuesday described it as “a very simple case,” saying if a business provides a service then it must be done equally.
Business owners can have set policies, but those must be applied equally and not discriminate, he said.
“There is a difference, your honors, in a freedom to believe and a freedom to act,” Ferguson argued. “Ms. Stutzman, per her religious expression, is free to believe what she wishes. But when she engages in public accommodations, and avails herself of the protections and the benefits that come with being a business, there are of course responsibilities that (come) from that.”
Stutzman and her attorneys are seeking to create exceptions to laws against discrimination, he said.
But she has the choice, and that includes assigning certain employees to handle all wedding flowers, or not selling wedding flowers at all as she’s been doing since the litigation started, he said.
Michael Scott, who represents Ingersoll and Freed, said a business discriminates on the basis of sexual orientation if the owner refuses to sell a product to a same-sex couple, yet will sell it to a heterosexual couple.
“The core purpose of the Washington law against discrimination, and of similar laws across the country, is to protect and preserve the essential human dignity of all members of our diverse society,” he said.
The laws are in place to protect everyone, including Stutzman when she herself is a customer, Scott said.
The attorneys’ written arguments are available at bit.ly/wa-supreme-court-briefs. Search under case number 91615-2.
Tuesday’s oral arguments also can be viewed on TVW at bit.ly/arlenes-arguments