BELLEVUE, Wash. – There were huge crowds Tuesday at Bellevue College as the Washington State Supreme Court heard arguments in a case against a Richland, Wash., flower shop owner who denied service to a gay couple.
The Washington State Attorney General’s Office and the American Civil Liberties Union believe Barronelle Stutzman violated discrimination laws when she denied service to the couple in her Eastern Washington flower shop, Arlene’s Flowers.
But Stutzman’s supporters believe she had no choice but to follow her Christian conscience.
“This is a big principle of free speech here,” said Karri Kupe.
The Alliance Defending Freedom, a conservative Christian nonprofit organization, stands behind Stutzman.
It began in 2013 when Stutzman refused customers Curt Freed and Robert Ingersoll’s request to make wedding flowers. Stutzman said it would violate her religious convictions if she participated in a same-sex wedding.
“It wasn’t that I wouldn’t create something for Rob, it was something I couldn’t create for Rob,” said Stutzman.
Her supporters and attorneys believe state law is flawed, claiming religious freedom and free speech protect her from violating her conscience.
“Creative professionals should not be forced by the government under threat of severe punishment to create custom work for a religious ceremony that violates their religious beliefs,” said Kupe.
The court heard arguments Tuesday morning in a case that’s being watched across the country.
State Attorney General Bob Ferguson, along with the ACLU, claims Stutzman discriminated against the gay couple, and violated state public accommodation laws.
“She’s denying service to a gay man who wishes to have flowers for a same-sex wedding,” said Ferguson. “That is very, very explicitly discrimination.”
Supporters for both sides filled the auditorium early, and maxed out overflow viewing rooms.
“The court will decide whether government has the power to separate my creativity from my faith by demanding that I create something to celebrate something that is totally against my conscience,” said Stutzman.
Supporters for Freed and Ingersoll were convinced the court will side with them.
“Your religious belief has full room to be joyful within the doors of your church,” said Emily Cooper. “But once you open those doors to the public and you serve the public you have to treat everybody equally.”
The ACLU hopes the court acknowledges what they consider to be blatant discrimination.
“Every participant in a wedding knows that the florist isn’t approving of the choice of spouse or anything else,” said ACLU’s Michael Scott. “It’s just selling flowers, it’s her business.”
Stutzman’s attorneys appealed the case to the state Supreme Court after a lower court ruled she has to pay state penalties and attorney’s fees.
Her lawyers worry a loss could financially cripple Stutzman and her family.
“She stands to lose everything she owns,” said Kupe. “Not just her business, but her home, her retirement, her life savings simply for declining to create custom arrangements for one event."
The Supreme Court heard Tuesday’s arguments at Bellevue College as part of an outreach effort to give the public a chance to see the state's judicial branch in action.
A decision in the Stutzman case could take months.