To no one’s huge surprise, the Washington state Supreme Court ruled against Baronelle Stutzman for refusing to provide flowers for a gay friend’s wedding. Also to no one’s surprise, she (that is, her lawyers) immediately appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which may get a new justice soon.
So what is the key question in this story for journalists striving to cover the actual arguments in the case? Once again, the small print in this story is that that Stutzman wasn’t refusing to serve gay people in all instances, like the Woolworth's lunch counter sit-ins during the Civil Rights era. Instead, she was claiming the right to refuse to provide flowers in one doctrinally defined situation -- a marriage rite.
But did mainstream news reporters make that crucial distinction?
In almost all cases the answer is "no." We’ll start with what the Seattle Times said:
A Richland florist who refused to provide flowers to a gay couple for their wedding violated anti-discrimination law, the state Supreme Court ruled Thursday.
The court ruled unanimously that Barronelle Stutzman discriminated against longtime customers Rob Ingersoll and Curt Freed when she refused to do the flowers for their 2013 wedding because of her religious opposition to same-sex marriage. Instead, Stutzman suggested several other florists in the area who would help them.
“We’re thrilled that the Washington Supreme Court has ruled in our favor. The court affirmed that we are on the right side of the law and the right side of history,” Ingersoll and Freed said in a statement.
Stutzman and her attorneys said they would appeal the decision to the U.S. Supreme Court. They also held out hope that President Donald Trump would issue an executive order protecting religious freedom, which was a campaign pledge.
The article went on to rehearse the facts of the case and then quote several people (the state attorney general and the American Civil Liberties Union attorney for the gay couple) who were at a Seattle news conference. This went on for a number of paragraphs.
The Seattle Times gave two paragraphs to a press release from Stutzman’s attorneys.
Once again we see a familiar pattern: People are allowed to argue their case on one side, while the other side is reduced to words on paper. Why not talk to authoritative voices on both sides?
Perhaps the relevant word here is "Kellerism."
Note to the Times: You’ve been covering this case for some time. By now, you should have Stutzman’s home phone number as well as the cell phones of her lawyers. At least try to get some fresh quotes from her. Why not let readers hear her voice? It the Stutzman team will not talk, then say so.
The Tri-City Herald, Stutzman’s home newspaper, got a quote out of her. There’s no reason why the Times couldn’t have done the same.
The Seattle paper also said this:
A Benton County Superior Court judge last 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. The trial court also imposed a fine of $1,000 and legal fees of just $1.
The Times left out the fact that Stutzman is also being hit up for all the legal fees that the ACLU is incurring for the case, which could easily go over $1 million. That will take care of her retirement, house and her savings. That does not faze the Ingersoll and Freed team, which had a statement on the ACLU-Washington’s web site.
At least the Associated Press account mentioned the crucial fact that Stutzman had previously served this couple. In fact, she has no history of discrimination against LGBTQ people as customers or as workers.
She had previously sold the couple flowers and knew they were gay. However, Stutzman told them that she couldn't provide flowers for their wedding because same-sex marriage was incompatible with her Christian beliefs.
I wish some of the news accounts would ask the right questions. If certain dress designers are allowed to refuse to design dresses for Melania Trump because their art is protected under the First Amendment, why aren’t Stutzman’s floral arrangements classed under the same category?
The Stranger, an alternative Seattle newspaper, posted a copy of the tweet from Alliance Defending Freedom imploring President Donald Trump’s help in this case. Then again, look at the Stranger’s lead sentence:
The Washington State Supreme Court dealt bigots a loss today, ruling that the Richland florist who in 2013 refused to provide flowers for a gay wedding violated the state's anti-discrimination law.
I know this is blue-state Seattle, but that’s disgusting, even in an alternative paper.
There hasn’t been much original reporting on this case ever since Stutzman’s case was heard by the Washington state supreme court in November except for this Federalist essay that talked about the longtime friendship between Stutzman and Robert Ingersoll, one of the plaintiffs.
But when Stutzman turned Ingersoll down, it was Freed, his partner, who told the world about it on Facebook. That one action brought the media, the ACLU and State Attorney General Bob Ferguson (the same lawyer who’s defying Trump’s travel ban, by the way) on her head.
Freed was never criticized for revealing all on Facebook. Why was that OK, but when the owner of a Gresham, Ore., bakery (Sweet Cakes by Melissa) revealed –- also on Facebook -- that a lesbian couple had complained against them, that was considered harassment? Too often, reporters follow their own biases and don't ask the unpopular questions.
I hope this goes to the Supreme Court, because there’s been a bunch of wedding-related cases concerning aggrieved gay couples and the bakeries, photographers, florists, etc., who say they’re not discriminating against the people on a consistent basis, but they are refusing to celebrate a specific kind of event because of centuries of established doctrines in several major world religions. Up until now, the court has dodged taking any such case on.
Until they do, read this Christian Science Monitor account of the Washington state case, because it’s by far the best account out there about a complex case that most reporters reduce to clichés and leave it at that.