The state Supreme Court heard arguments Tuesday in the closely watched case of a gay couple who sued a Richland florist for refusing to provide flowers for their wedding.
Rob Ingersoll and Curt Freed were shocked and hurt when their longtime florist refused to do the flowers for their 2013 wedding because of her religious opposition to same-sex marriage.
The couple, with the help of attorneys, sued Richland florist Barronelle Stutzman under Washington’s anti-discrimination and consumer-protection laws.
On Tuesday, the state Supreme Court heard arguments in the case, Ingersoll v. Arlene’s Flowers, in a special session at Bellevue College.
The high-profile case highlights the clash between cherished constitutional principles — the right to be treated equally under the law and the free exercise of religion and speech.
Attorneys for Stutzman argued Tuesday that a floral arrangement is a form of speech deserving of protection and that government cannot compel Stutzman to create an arrangement for a gay couple against her religious beliefs.
State Attorney General Bob Ferguson urged the court to uphold state anti-discrimination laws and not to create an exception for religious beliefs. He noted that many people once held strong religious beliefs against interracial marriage, but the courts ultimately struck down those laws as discriminatory.
Several hundred people lined up outside a Bellevue College theater before the doors opened to hear the arguments. Many, from local churches, Christian businesses, organizations and Christian schools, held signs with a photo of Stutzman and the words “Freedom to Create.”
Inside the theater, many spectators held white tissue paper flowers to show their support of the Richland florist.
Kathy Echelbarger, of Edmonds, said she believed the case was about freedom of religion. “The government shouldn’t be telling her who she should or shouldn’t be doing business with,” she said.
Some members of Bellevue College’s LGBTQ community also attended to show support for the gay couple.
“We’ve worked so hard for our gains. This is trying to push back years and years of progress. It’s disheartening,” said Isaac Hopps, a leader of the campus LGBTQ organization.
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Stutzman, who took over management of her mother’s flower shop in 1982, had provided floral arrangements for Ingersoll and Freed for almost a decade when Ingersoll told her the two were planning a wedding with 100 guests at a local venue. Stutzman refused to provide the flowers, but suggested several other florists in the area who would help them.
A Benton County Superior Court judge in February ruled that Stutzman’s religious beliefs did not allow her to discriminate against the couple and that she must provide flowers for same-sex weddings, or stop doing weddings at all.
Stutzman and her attorneys argue that the court’s ruling is unlawful government coercion and that the creative expression of floral arrangement deserves the same protection as free speech.
“The government is coming in and telling me what to say, what to create, what to believe. That’s not America to me,” Stutzman said in a phone interview in advance of the court hearing.
During Tuesday’s hearing, several justices expressed skepticism for that argument, asking why it wouldn’t also extend to bartenders, stationery providers or landscape artists who also bring creativity to their work.
“So anyone worried about their expression may deny services to a customer?” asked Justice Steven Gonzales.
The case has attracted more than a dozen friend-of-court briefs on behalf of the gay couple, including the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund and a group of Washington businesses that include Amazon, Microsoft and the Metropolitan Seattle Chamber of Commerce.
The case also marked the first time Ferguson, the attorney general, argued before the state’s high court. Ferguson brought a suit against Arlene’s Flowers under the state’s Consumer Protection Actafter Stutzman refused his letter directing her to comply with Washington law that prohibits discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.
Ferguson agreed that the case raises unprecedented issues, but not the same issues that alarm the florist and her attorneys.
He told the justices that no court in the country has ever held that a religious objection allows a business owner to violate anti-discrimination law.
“Ms. Stutzman is free to believe what she wishes,” he said, but because she runs a public business, he said, she is required under the law to serve everyone equally.
Amicus briefs were also filed on behalf of Stutzman and Arlene’s Flowers, including one from African-American and Hispanic churches and their pastors who argue that the government should not penalize people for the long-held belief that marriage is a union between a husband and wife.
Noting that the U.S. Supreme Court ruled last year that same-sex marriage is legal, the brief argues that “its ruling in no way requires private citizens to facilitate such marriages against their conscience … Mrs. Stutzman seeks the freedom to act on her reasonable, conscientious belief about marriage — while leaving same-sex couples free to do the same.”
Stutzman’s attorneys say they are also challenging the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington, which, on behalf of Ingersoll and Freed, is seeking attorney fees from both Arlene’s Flowers and from Stutzman personally as the owner of the business.
The trial court imposed a fine of $1,000 and legal fees of just $1. But one of the florist’s attorneys, Kerri Kupec, said attorney fees could now climb into “seven figures.”
“By suing Barronelle in her personal capacity, the government is threatening her home, her life savings, her retirement, because she doesn’t agree with its ideology. That’s pretty alarming,” Kupec said.
ACLU’s Washington legal director, Emily Chiang, said bringing a discrimination case can be expensive. State law allows the prevailing party to recover attorney costs. “Otherwise, victims of discrimination would have to pay twice: once when they were discriminated against, and a second time when they seek to vindicate their rights in court,” Chiang said.
The court is not expected to rule for several months.