Arlene's Flowers vs. Washington state: This religious liberty battle keeps on going

Unfortunately, I missed quite the event in my back yard on Tuesday: A hearing before the Washington State Supreme Court on what’s known as the “Arlene’s Flowers case.” Seated in an auditorium about seven miles from where I live, legal teams in Bellevue (across the lake from Seattle) argued the crucial church-state case, Robert Ingersoll & Curt Freed v. Arlene's Flowers, Inc.

I’ve covered the saga of Baronelle Stutzman before in GetReligion, so please click on that link to refresh your memories about the mainstream press coverage of what led to the lawsuit as well as what certainly appears to be the animus that the local American Civil Liberties Union and State Attorney General Bob Ferguson have against this florist.

Outside the auditorium where the hearing was held, there were a lot of pro-Stutzman demonstrators clamoring for her; an unusual sight in this bluest of blue states. The Tri-City Herald, a daily in eastern Washington that’s Stutzman’s hometown newspaper had the best reporting on the hearing, so I’ll start with that: 

BELLEVUE  -- 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 story explained that a state superior court judge had ruled last year that she was guilty of discrimination.

“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 Herald piece included a video of the hour-long proceeding and a link to the court’s web site where you could read all the briefs associated with the case. (Unfortunately, the case number the paper provided didn’t work when I tried it).

An Associated Press version of the events concentrated on the judges’ mostly adverse reaction to Stutzman. 

Justice Susan Owens brought up the state's first and only black justice, the recently deceased Charles Z. Smith, who had to stay in separate hotels from other attorneys when he traveled the country while working for the Justice Department in the 1960s.
"How is this different?" Owens asked. "Because I'm sure some of the owners of those hotels would profess they had strongly held religious beliefs that prohibited racial integration."
For one thing, Waggoner responded, renting out a hotel room isn't a form of artistic expression or speech deserving of protection. Stutzman's floral arrangements do constitute expression protected by the Constitution, the lawyer said, and the government can't compel that expression.

None of the media outlets brought up the national ramifications of this case and whether a Donald Trump presidency might make things different for the growing number of Christian florists, wedding cake bakers and wedding venue owners out there who are getting sued for not going along with gay weddings.

However, NPR sent a reporter there who provided an evenhanded account of what went on at the hearing plus some audio from the strip mall in Richland, Wash., where the florist shop is located.

The Seattle Times also covered the event, with some interesting factoids such as a group of Hispanic and black churches having filed a friend-of-the-court brief in favor of Stutzman. It added that the gay couple also got friend-of-the-court briefs not only from advocacy groups, but also:

... a group of Washington businesses that include Amazon, Microsoft and the Metropolitan Seattle Chamber of Commerce.

Would have liked to have heard more on that angle. I was aware of some of Amazon’s and Microsoft’s policies on gay marriage but now they’re getting involved in court cases?

There's lots more to read. The Yakima Herald just did a story on how Pasco (another of the tri-cities) is considering a resolution in favor of Stutzman. Notice how the headline mentioned the words religious freedom without scare quotes.

As my colleague Bobby Ross has pointed out recently, maybe there’s a new era coming when religious liberty might get taken seriously by the media. There's certainly a lot of coverage on this case compared to how other items on the state supreme court's docket. I'd sure be surprised if the judges here vote in her favor.

For journalists and anyone concerned about the First Amendment, the interesting question is where the case may go next.

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