Sunday, Feb 25, 2024

Supreme Court's conservative majority appears sympathetic to Christian graphic designer who refuses to create websites for same-sex weddings

Supreme Court's conservative majority appears sympathetic to Christian graphic designer who refuses to create websites for same-sex weddings

Lorie Smith claims Colorado is forcing her to create messages that go against her religious beliefs, violating her free-speech rights.
Lorie Smith, a Christian graphic designer in Colorado, says she wants to combine her love of weddings and storytelling by expanding her business to design wedding websites. But she refuses to create content that she says contradicts her faith, such as celebrating same-sex weddings, resulting in a legal battle that's landed at the Supreme Court.

The 38-year-old is the owner of 303 Creative, a Denver-based graphic design firm that she's been running for more than a decade. Smith highlights her faith on her website and emphasizes that she avoids communicating messages that are "inconsistent with her religious beliefs."

At the heart of the case is a Colorado law that forbids businesses from discriminating based on sexual orientation. Smith claims the anti-discrimination law forces her to promote messages she's against, violating her First Amendment free speech rights. 

"As a Christian, I can't separate my faith from who I am," Smith told Insider in a recent interview. "And so the state is asking me to create artwork to celebrate things that go against the core of who I am, and nobody should be put in that position."

The Supreme Court on Monday heard more than two hours of oral arguments on the dispute, which touched on the intersection of religious liberty and LGBTQ+ rights. But the justices are reviewing the case through a free speech lens, addressing the question of whether "applying a public-accommodation law to compel an artist to speak or stay silent violates the Free Speech Clause of the First Amendment."

Alliance Defending Freedom, a conservative legal group representing 303 Creative, told the Supreme Court that Smith serves all kinds of clients, including those who identify as LGBTQ+, but that she should not be required to make websites for same-sex weddings. 

"Ms. Smith believes opposite-sex marriage honors scripture and same-sex marriage contradicts it," attorney Kristen Waggoner argued Monday. 

The court's 6-3 conservative majority appeared sympathetic to Smith's position. Justice Neil Gorsuch raised a hypothetical situation of a freelancer who's been asked to write a press release for a group they disagree with, seemingly distinguishing between a business declining to express a message and declining to serve a client. 

"I offer to write press releases for anyone, it's not 'who', but it is a 'what,'" Gorsuch said. "And the 'what' is I won't write a press release that expresses religious views or that I disagree with."

The state of Colorado disputes Smith's argument, defending that its law does not force any speech, but only requires businesses to serve all Colorado customers, regardless of their sexual orientation. Lower courts have sided with the state. 

The state warns that a ruling in favor of Smith could have far-reaching consequences, enabling businesses to discriminate not only based on sexual orientation but also potentially on the basis of gender, race, religion, and disability.

"Our concern is this case threatens to create a loophole that firms could deny service to someone based on who they are, claiming some expressive interest on the behalf of the business owner," Attorney General Phil Weiser told Insider. "That loophole has never existed in our law before. If you create it, it could do considerable damage to this important anti-discrimination norm that's long been a part of Colorado law and the federal law."

The state on Monday told the Supreme Court that 303 Creative's position is "sweeping" because it could open the door to businesses promoting "all sorts of racist, sexist and bigoted views."

"This rule would allow another web design company to say, 'no interracial couples served,' an ad agency could refuse women-led businesses, and a tech consulting company could refuse to serve 303 Creative itself because it disagreed with the owner's religion," Colorado Solicitor General Eric Olson said.

"This court should not upend long-settled law that protects the full and equal access of all Americans to our public marketplace," he added.

The high-profile challenge is reminiscent of a Supreme Court case that also came out of Colorado years ago, when baker Jack Phillips refused to create a wedding cake for a same-sex couple because of his religious beliefs. The justices in 2018 narrowly ruled in favor of Phillips, but failed to confront the free speech issues that are at stake now. 

"It's certainly been a rollercoaster of a ride, but what I'm standing to protect is the right for all to speak freely, whether your views on marriage are similar to mine or different," Smith told Insider. "That right to speak freely and to live and work consistently with our own beliefs is essential to a free society."

The Supreme Court is expected to hand down its decision in the case, 303 Creative LLC v. Elenis, by June.

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