Wednesday, February 1, 2023
Feb. 1, 2023

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Supreme Court to decide if a Christian business owner can turn away gay weddings


WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court hears arguments Monday about whether a conservative Christian business owner has a 1st Amendment right to refuse to work with same-sex couples planning to marry.

At issue is a Colorado website designer claiming a free-speech right to ignore the state’s anti-discrimination law and turn away gay couples seeking her services.

Twenty-two states including California require businesses open to the public to provide full and equal service to all, without regard to race, religion, gender or sexual orientation.

Though the high court has heard similar disputes in the past, it has not declared that business owners with strong religious convictions have a constitutional right to discriminate against same-sex weddings.

In recent years, the Alliance Defending Freedom, an advocacy group based in Arizona, backed a series of lawsuits on behalf of Christians in business who refuse to take any part in gay weddings. They include a baker of wedding cakes, a wedding photographer, a florist and, now, a website designer.

Lorie Smith says she would like to expand her business designing websites to include weddings, but only if she can be assured she need not work with a same-sex couple. She sued seeking such a right and lost before a federal judge and the 10th Circuit Court in Denver.

Justices voted in February to hear her appeal in the case of 303 Creative vs. Elenis and decide whether it violates the free-speech clause of the 1st amendment to “compel an artist to speak or stay silent.”

Her lawyers argue she does not seek a right to discriminate against gay people in every instance, but only wants the right to avoid being required to — in her view — express support for same-sex marriages that contradict her religion.

She “is willing to create custom websites for anyone, including those who identify as LGBT,” they wrote in their brief, “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.”

Lawyers for Colorado and the Justice Department disputed that claim. They said a refusal to work with same-sex couples planning a wedding is discrimination based on sexual orientation and does not involve speech.

They said a gay couple might ask Smith “to provide them with a website using a design she has already created for other clients and merely substituting the couple’s names and the logistical details of their wedding,” they said. Refusing them would be discrimination against the couple, not a speech restriction, they argued.

Four years ago, the court was divided over a similar case involving a baker of wedding cakes. Shortly before he retired, Justice Anthony M. Kennedy spoke for the court in the Masterpiece Cakeshop case and said the baker and his religious beliefs had been treated unfairly by the state civil rights commission.

But that was a narrow opinion that did not decide whether the baker had a free speech right not to make a wedding cake for a same-sex couple.

Since then, Justices Brett M. Kavanaugh and Amy Coney Barrett have joined the court, creating a strong conservative majority.

Civil rights advocates fear that a ruling in favor of the right to discriminate in the new Colorado case could trigger more discrimination against LGBTQ customers.

“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,” said Jennifer C. Pizer, chief legal officer for Lambda Legal in Los Angeles. “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.”