Hundreds of supporters cheered on the Washington Christian grandmother and florist who was fined for declining to make floral arrangements for a same-sex wedding as she appeared before the state's Supreme Court on Tuesday for oral arguments in her appeal of an unfavorable lower court ruling.
As previously reported by The Christian Post, Barronelle Stutzman, the owner of Arlene's Flowers in Richland, Washington, was fined $1,001 by the Benton County Superior Court in 2015 because of her objection to making floral arrangements for the same-sex wedding of her longtime customer Robert Ingersoll and his partner Curt Freed in 2013 because she felt it would have violated her Christian beliefs on marriage to do so.
Although Ingersoll and Freed were able to order flowers for their wedding from another florist and Stutzman had served Ingersoll for nearly 10 years, the gay couple decided to file a lawsuit against her with the help of the American Civil Liberties Union.
In addition to the Benton County Court ruling that Stutzman had violated that state's discrimination laws, and ordering her to pay the fine and the couple's expensive legal fees, the state's Attorney General Bob Ferguson also filed a consumer protection lawsuit against Stutzman.
The 70-year-old Stutzman is now at risk of not only losing her business but also losing her life savings and personal retirement assets.
After losing the lower court battle, Stutzman and her lawyers at Alliance Defending Freedom filed an appeal to the Washington Supreme Court and on Tuesday, the nine-justice court held oral arguments in an auditorium at Bellevue College.
According to the Tri-Ctiy Herald, hundreds of supporters came out to encourage Stutzman.
Even though the auditorium seats 300 people, the complex was filled to capacity and other supporters had to gather outside the auditorium. The majority of the people gathered outside the auditorium were there in support of Stutzman and her fight for religious freedom. The supporters were holding white roses and signs that read "Let Freedom Bloom," "Freedom to Create," and "Justice for Barronelle."
"I'm here because I believe in religious liberties, and I'm going to stand with Barronelle because I think that we have the freedom to stand for what we believe," Georgene Faries, a resident of Arlington, Washington, told the Tri-City Herald. " It's not hate mongering. I think that is a real confusion and that is a distortion and especially a lie because we don't hate anybody. We don't hate individuals."
After the hearing, Stutzman told the crowd of supporters that her case has bigger implications than her own livelihood.
"The government is telling me there is one choice — either I give up my faith and my freedom or I lose everything I own," Stutzman said. "Rob has the freedom to act on his beliefs and that is all that I am asking, for that same freedom. Our Constitution protects that freedom but it just isn't about my freedom, it is about all of our freedoms."
"When the government can come in and tell you what to do, what to create and what to believe, we do not live in a free America," she added. "Protecting our beliefs isn't a negative thing like some people say it is. It's good things like justice, reason, fairness and respect. However this court rules, it will not effect my faith and my love for all."
Stutzman also said that she was "overwhelmed" and "encouraged" by the amount of support she received.
"[I feel] very blessed and overwhelmed. It was amazing that people took the time to come out," she told ADF. "I think they believe in faith and they believe in Christ, and that is one way to show that they stand."
Although Stutzman's supporters made up a large percentage of the crowd, the event was also attended by local LGBT activists from Bellevue College who were holding rainbow gay pride flags.
"I go to Bellevue College and I'm a part of the LGBT leadership, and I came out here today to support people from my community and let them know they have worth and value," Bellevue College sophomore Isaac Hopps told the Tri-City Herald. "It's just very hard times for our community currently and sometimes I feel like people coming out and standing up for ourselves makes us feel a little bit better."
During the oral arguments, ADF attorney Kristen Waggoner argued that under the attorney general's definition of the state's anti-discrimination law, it's not just the Christian florists and bakers that could be forced to violate their conscience.
"A Muslim graphics designer should not be compelled to create designs promoting a Jewish Friends of Israel group. A gay public relations manager shouldn't be forced to promote the Westboro Baptist Church," Waggoner told the court. "And a Christian floral designer shouldn't be forced to create custom wedding designs for a wedding that is not between one man and one woman."
According to the Killeen Daily Herald, Waggoner was questioned by Justice Susan Owens, who asked how allowing a florist to decline to serve a same-sex wedding is any different than allowing a hotel not to rent a room to an African-American.
"Because I'm sure some of the owners of those hotels would profess they had strongly held religious beliefs that prohibited racial integration," Owens said.
Justice Mary Lu wondered where the limit would lie for freedom of expression if florists were allowed to claim religious exemption in turning down same-sex weddings.
"What's the limiting principle?" the justice asked. "Is it the landscape architecture next? Is it the bartender?"
In combatting the arguments that Stutzman's freedom of expression is tantamount to refusing service to African-Americans on the grounds of religious freedom, Waggoner said that Stutzman's case specifically deals with marriage.
Although she faced heavy questioning, Waggoner came away from the case with a positive outlook.
"This case is about crushing dissent. And in a pluralistic society like ours, there must be room for people with differing beliefs to coexist peacefully," Waggoner said after the hearing.
"The court seemed very interested in our argument about free expression and that Barronelle creates artistic expression every time she does a custom arrangement and she shouldn't be forced to violate her conscience and create art that violates her conscience."
The court is expected to issue a written decision in the next few months. Waggoner said that should Stutzman lose her appeal, the possibility is on the table to petition to the United States Supreme Court to take up the case.