The conservative majority of the Supreme Court appeared ready to rule on Monday that a Christian website designer has the right to exercise his or her free speech and refuse to deal with same-sex couples who want to get married.
In the Colorado case before the court, there was a conflict between a business owner's First Amendment rights and a state law prohibiting discrimination against consumers based on their race, religion, gender, or sexual orientation.
The outcomes could plug a legal loophole in California and 21 other, mainly blue states, where discrimination against LGBTQ customers is expressly prohibited by law.
However, several justices indicated a desire to reach a limited decision that would support some business owners' First Amendment rights without establishing a significant new free-speech loophole that would encourage more discrimination based on sexual orientation, race, gender, disability, or other legally protected characteristics.
The judges sounded ideologically divided throughout the more than two hours of argument. Lorie Smith, a website designer looking to diversify her line of work into wedding planning, filed the lawsuit.
But she launched a lawsuit against the state of Colorado to get guarantees that she would not have to work with a same-sex couple who wanted a website for their wedding.
Smith's attorneys stated in their legal brief that she does not demand the right to consistently discriminate against homosexual people but merely the right to refrain from being forced to declare support for same-sex unions, which in her opinion is against her religious beliefs.
“She is willing to create custom websites for anyone, including those who identify as LGBT, provided their message does not conflict with her religious views. But she cannot create websites that promote messages contrary to her faith, such as messages that condone violence or promote sexual immorality, abortion, or same-sex marriage,” they wrote.
In defense of the idea of equitable treatment for all people and civil rights, the three liberal justices essentially rejected her assertion. They advised the court to exercise caution in establishing a new fundamental right to discriminate.
“What’s the limiting line” for the proposed free-speech right to deny service? How about people who don’t believe in an interracial marriage or about people who don’t believe that disabled people should get married?” Justice Sonia Sotomayor Inquired.
The liberal judges further questioned whether the information on a typical wedding website template, which includes the couple's information, the location of the event, nearby hotels, and a gift registry, should be interpreted as reflecting the opinions of the website designer rather than the couple. How come to that speech? Justice Elena Kagan was questioned.
Even if the names and other logistical aspects of the websites for opposite-sex couples and same-sex couples were changed, Smith's lawyer contended that the context would be different and force her client to say something she did not agree with.
Kristen Waggoner, senior counsel at Alliance Defending Freedom, stated: “Context changes meaning.”
The first amendment, according to the six conservatives, has historically safeguarded Americans from being forced to express opinions or support causes that they oppose.
And they said that this logic may be applied to a web designer who claims that celebrating a gay wedding at work would go against her Christian beliefs.
Justices Neil M. Gorsuch and Brett M. Kavanaugh stated that the court may make a limited decision while upholding the fundamental premise that businesspeople cannot be forced to support ideologies they disagree with.
According to Gorsuch, “She is willing to sell to everyone, but she won’t do a website that celebrates something that offends her religious beliefs."
Only a few companies, according to Kavanaugh, might be eligible for such an exemption. He claimed that businesses including hair salons, tailors, jewelers, caterers, and restaurants would likely not be covered by the First Amendment's guarantee of free expression.
He claimed that the matter boils down to the rather specific issue of how to describe website designers. Do they resemble publishing houses or other equivalents of free expression more than they do eateries, jewelers, and tailors?
Justice Amy Coney Barrett concurred that a person creating wedding-themed websites would be protected by their right to free speech.
"Why isn’t it compelled speech?" She questioned Colorado's state solicitor general, Eric Olson, about the state's anti-discrimination law.
Olson cautioned that allowing Smith to turn away any same-sex clients who inquired about her wedding services would be granting her a "license" to discriminate.
Businesses may offer some goods and not others, he said, but they are not allowed to discriminate against customers based on their ethnicity, religion, or sexual orientation.
For example, a store that sells Christmas items need not sell gifts for Hanukkah as well. But “the Christmas store may not announce ‘No Jews allowed,” he muttered.
“The free speech clause exemption the company seeks here is sweeping because it would apply not just to sincerely held religious beliefs, like those of the company and its owner, but also to all sorts of racist, sexist, and bigoted views,” he explained to the court.
The conservative Christian claims of religious freedom have frequently been supported by Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., Justices Clarence Thomas, and Samuel A.
Alito Jr., dissented in 2015 when the court recognized a right to gay marriage. Before a federal court and the 10th Circuit Court in Denver, Smith previously lost her case.
In the case of 303 Creative v. Elenis, the justices decided in February to consider her appeal and determine whether compelling an artist to speak or remain silent is against the first amendment's guarantee of free expression. A decision is anticipated in June.
Similar cases have been heard by the high court before, usually involving requests for religious freedom. None of those decisions determined that business owners with strong religious beliefs have a constitutional right to discriminate against same-sex weddings.
However, the current case is solely based on free speech and not religious freedom. The advocacy organization Alliance Defending Freedom, which has its headquarters in Arizona, has supported several legal actions in recent years on behalf of Christians who work in industries that forbid them from participating in same-sex marriages.
Wedding cake bakers, photographers, florists, and now website designers were among them. In a case involving a wedding cake baker from four years prior, the jury was split. Just before his retirement, Justice Anthony M.
Speaking on behalf of the court in the Masterpiece Cakeshop case, Kennedy claimed that the state civil rights commission had unfairly treated the baker and his religious convictions.
However, that was a limited viewpoint, and it was not decided by it whether the baker had the freedom of speech to refuse to make a wedding cake for a same-sex couple. Barrett and Kavanaugh have since joined the court, giving it a strong conservative majority.
Advocates for civil rights worry that if the right to discriminate is upheld in the recent Colorado case, it may lead to increased prejudice against LGBTQ clients.
In Los Angeles, Lambda Legal's chief legal officer, Jennifer C. Pizer, made the statement: “Every one of us is entitled to be treated as an equal member of our community when seeking goods or services in the commercial marketplace.”
“Any ruling that allows our precious free speech rights to be twisted into tools for discriminatory exclusion would mock the Constitution’s promises of equality in public life. Depending on the outcome of this case, the door could be flung open for escalating discrimination, including in areas such as medical services, lodging, and transportation,” she added.
VID G. SAVAGE, The Los Angeles Times, (2022 December 5th). "Supreme Court leans in favor of a Christian website designer’s right to turn away gay weddings": The Supreme Court’s conservative majority on Monday sounded ready to rule that a Christian website designer has a free-speech right to refuse to work with same-sex couples planning to marry.