Hundreds of community members quietly filled the hallways of Pasco City Council on Monday, anxiously waiting for a vote.
Council members planned to spend the majority of the meeting discussing the budget for the upcoming year, but the expectant crowd wasn’t there for that. Citizens gathered to learn if the city would pursue a resolution on protecting religious freedom in response to an ongoing state Supreme Court case involving Richland florist Barronelle Stutzman.
In 2013, Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson and a couple, Robert Ingersoll and Curt Freed, sued Stutzman. In 2015, a Benton County Superior Court Judge ruled that Stutzman violated the state’s laws against discrimination and the Consumer Protection Act when she refused to produce a floral arrangement for the gay couple’s wedding because it went against her Christian belief that marriage should be between a man and a woman. She appeared before the state Supreme Court last Tuesday to appeal that decision.
The controversial resolution that the City Council was considering at the meeting proposed to “preserve the rights of the individual to believe and live by their most deeply held convictions without injury or damage to the rights of others.”
The anticipation was palpable in the crammed council chambers. A few hundred attendees filled every chair, leaving only standing room at the back of the chambers and in the lobby, where a small screen broadcast the meeting. Eyes were glued to the screen and with every vote against the resolution — many in the crowd clapping and cheering.
Although the vote was rejected by a majority of the council — on a vote of five to two — the proposed resolution raised questions about whether the City Council should be addressing social issues outside the scope of municipal government.
The resolution was proposed by Councilman Bob Hoffman at the previous week’s council meeting, one day before Stutzman — the owner of Arlene’s Flower shop — appeared before the state Supreme Court.
“I’m quite stunned, actually, that we’re doing this because this was brought up before and they elected not to take it up because it really has nothing to do with the job of being a city official,” says Councilwoman Rebecca Francik, who voted against pursuing the resolution. “Our job is water, sewer, police, fire, zoning, parks. This is well outside the scope of what we’re supposed to do and it’s polarizing to our community.”
City Manager Dave Zabell says that the city received considerable public input through its website portal — the vast majority of which was in opposition to the proposed resolution.
“I’m glad we didn’t take up the issue,” says City of Pasco Mayor Matt Watkins. “I personally believe municipal government works best when they stick to municipal issues.”
“It’s not typical for a city council to issue a resolution on a pending Supreme Court case, and doing so will not influence the court’s ruling, which will be based on the law,” says Doug Honig, communications director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington, the organization representing Freed and Ingersoll.
Some Pasco residents believe that the City Council should not be allocating resources to pass resolutions on social matters.
“What this really is — it’s a statement. Why are we spending our tax dollars to make a point like this? There are so many other avenues for people who feel strongly about this to state those beliefs, and having these conversations doesn’t have to be on the taxpayer’s dime,” says Craig Maloney, a Pasco resident.
Janie Romine of West Richland says she attended the Pasco City Council meeting in solidarity for her openly gay 13-year-old son.
“In every opportunity I get, I’m going to show my faith and stand beside him,” says Romine. “I’m a big supporter of PFLAG. Our PFLAG group is here in numbers and lots of really good people are here saying ‘This isn’t right; this is not what our country is built on.’”
Others supported the City Council’s resolution and attended the meeting in support of Barronelle Stutzman of Arlene’s Flowers.
Why are we spending our tax dollars to make a point like this?
Jill Farris thinks business owners shouldn’t have to provide a service if doing so goes against their religious beliefs.
“I am proud of [the City Council] for doing it. They’re not excluding anyone; they’re saying that all people have the right to that sort of freedom. So that would include people that we don’t agree with religiously. They simply want to state that they are in support of that. I think it takes great courage. I think it’s her creative expression and her honoring her beliefs,” says Farris.
Jennifer Goulet is a founding member of the Tri-Cities Freethinkers, a nonprofit community outreach organization that advocates for the separation of church and state. Goulet and the nonprofit organized community members to show up to the City Council meeting and to send letters and make calls to Pasco City Council officials.
“I was really happy with the outcome,” says Goulet. “I know for a fact if we had not shown up, sent letters and made calls, we wouldn’t have had that outcome. I had elected officials reach out to me and tell me they really appreciate the respectful letters. That’s why we have to do things like this — because it does make a difference.”
This matter is also personal for Goulet, who is friends with Freed and Ingersoll.
“I talked with Curt right after and he was really happy to see how it turned out,” she says.
Elsie Puig is a freelance writer and web designer living in Richland, Wash. She contributes regularly to Tri-Cities Area Journal of Business and Living TC. She has a strong background in journalism, digital marketing and communications. She is currently pursuing her online M.A. in web design and online communications from the University of Florida.More stories by Elsie Puig