A lawsuit against a Washington florist who refused to do the flowers for a gay couple's wedding went to court Friday. Attorneys for the Richland florist disputed the state's claim that her refusal on moral grounds violated consumer protection law.
Attorneys for florist Baronelle Stutzman argue the state shouldn't be in court at all. They say claims of discrimination against gays and lesbians should first be reviewed administratively by the Washington Human Rights Commission.
For the most part, this first round of oral arguments in Benton County Superior Court didn't get into the meat of the case. But the florist's attorney Justin Bristol realizes the case's progression will be closely watched by both sides of the gay rights debate. “And," he says, "the courts are at a very difficult crossroads because they're going to have to determine who's rights are going to prevail.”
Bristol is part of a religious legal foundation called the Alliance Defending Freedom. The group is counter-suing the state of Washington.
The case of Arlene's Flowers in Richland has attracted national attention to this small community in the southeast corner of Washington. Three judges have recused themselves from the case – one because of ties to the florist through civic activities. The florist's attorneys have also asked the standing Judge Sal Mendoza to step because he has a professional connection to one of the gay men.
But Mendoza responded his wife has also made several purchases from Arlene's Flowers. “That's what happens in small communities,” the judge said.
Attorneys also debated whether the Washington attorney general's suit against Baronelle Stutzman should be merged with a related civil case against her by the ACLU. Judge Mendonza decided to consolidate the cases, at least for now.