The U.S. Supreme Court started hearing arguments in a significant case involving an evangelical Christian web designer who declines to work on same-sex unions on Monday. The case pits LGBT rights against a claim that the constitutional right to free speech exempts artists from anti-discrimination laws.
Lorie Smith, a business owner in the Denver area, had appealed a Colorado law that forbids discrimination based on sexual orientation and other factors. The justices were hearing her case. Colorado won in lower courts, including the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver in 2021.
Smith, who owns 303 Creative, a company that specializes in web design, claims that Colorado’s Anti-Discrimination Act infringes on artists’ First Amendment rights to free speech by requiring them to convey messages they disagree with through their work.
The case stems from the Supreme Court’s narrow 2018 decision in favor of Jack Phillips, a Christian baker from the Denver area who refused to make a wedding cake for a gay couple out of religious conviction. In that case, the court refrained from establishing a free speech exception to anti-discrimination laws.
Smith is represented by lawyers from the Alliance Defending Freedom, a pro-conservative organization for religious freedom, just like Phillips. The Supreme Court chose to focus on free speech instead of considering her challenge to a Colorado law based on religious rights that are also protected by the First Amendment.
Endorsing Smith’s free speech arguments could result in widespread discrimination against LGBT people and others, according to Colorado, civil rights organizations, and numerous legal scholars.
The state stated in a legal brief to the Supreme Court that such a law “would encompass not only a business’s objections to serving certain customers motivated by sincerely held religious beliefs, but also objections motivated by ignorance, whim, bigotry, caprice, and more – including pure expressions of racial, sexist, or anti-religious hatred.”
Many states have public accommodations laws that prohibit discrimination in places like housing, hotels, retail establishments, restaurants, and educational institutions.
One was first passed in 1885 in Colorado. The current legislation prohibits publicly accessible businesses from refusing to provide goods or services to individuals based on their race, gender, sexual orientation, religion, or other characteristics, as well as from posting a notice to that effect.
Even as it has supported LGBT rights in other cases, the Supreme Court, with its 6-3 conservative majority, has grown more supportive of religious freedom claims in recent years. In a historic 2015 decision, the court legalized gay marriage nationwide, and in 2020 it expanded federal law’s protections for LGBT employees.
Smith, 38, said she agrees with many conservative Christians that marriage should only be permitted between people of the same sex. In 2016, she filed a preventative lawsuit against the Colorado Civil Rights Commission and other state officials out of concern that she would be penalized for turning down gay weddings.
Smith says her objection is not to working with gay people. She says she’d work with a gay client who needed help with graphics for an animal rescue shelter, for example, or to promote an organization serving children with disabilities. But she objects to creating messages supporting same-sex marriage, just as she wouldn’t create a website for a couple who met while they both were married to other people and then divorced, Waggoner said.
In other states, similar legal battles have been fought between owners of small businesses like wedding photographers and calligraphers.
By the end of June, Smith’s case is anticipated to be decided.