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US court sides with web designer who sticks to Christian beliefs

Lorie Smith said her faith requires her to decline customers seeking wedding-related services for same-sex unions
Web designer Lorie Smith

Web designer Lorie Smith. (Photo: Law and Crime)

Published: July 04, 2023 05:11 AM GMT
Updated: July 04, 2023 05:24 AM GMT

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled June 30 in favor of a Christian web designer who argued she had a First Amendment right to refuse to provide services for same-sex marriages despite a Colorado law prohibiting discrimination against people who identify as LGBTQ+.

In a 6-3 decision split down the court's ideological lines, justices found the First Amendment protects Lorie Smith, a website designer who said her Christian faith requires her to decline customers seeking wedding-related services for same-sex unions. The court ruled that for Colorado to force her to do so, against her religious convictions, would be unconstitutional compelled speech.

"Colorado seeks to force an individual to speak in ways that align with its views but defy her conscience about a matter of major significance," Justice Neil Gorsuch wrote in a majority opinion for 303 Creative v. Elenis.

"Under Colorado's logic, the government may compel anyone who speaks for pay on a given topic to accept all commissions on that same topic -- no matter the message -- if the topic somehow implicates a customer's statutorily protected trait," Gorsuch wrote. "Taken seriously, that principle would allow the government to force all manner of artists, speechwriters, and others whose services involve speech to speak what they do not believe on pain of penalty."

In a dissent, Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote, "Today, the Court, for the first time in its history, grants a business open to the public a constitutional right to refuse to serve members of a protected class."

"Our Constitution contains no right to refuse service to a disfavored group," argued Sotomayor, one of six justices on the bench who are Catholic.

Smith's opponents argued that a ruling in her favor would potentially pave the way for discrimination against not just people who identify as LGBTQ+, but also against other people according to their race, religion or immigration status by refusing service to such groups. However, Smith and her supporters argued a ruling in her favor would protect Americans from having to take work that violated their beliefs.

Smith began her suit against Colorado prior to launching wedding services, arguing she did not want to break the law in refusing potential work.

Kristen Waggoner, president, CEO and general counsel for Alliance Defending Freedom, the public interest firm which represented Smith, said in a statement the Supreme Court "rightly reaffirmed that the government can't force Americans to say things they don't believe."

"The court reiterated that it's unconstitutional for the state to eliminate from the public square ideas it dislikes, including the belief that marriage is the union of husband and wife," Waggoner said. "Disagreement isn't discrimination, and the government can't mislabel speech as discrimination to censor it."

Kelley Robinson, president of the Human Rights Campaign, an LGBTQ+ advocacy group, said in a statement that the ruling "is a dangerous step backward, giving some businesses the power to discriminate against people simply because of who we are."

"Make no mistake, this case was manufactured by the Alliance for Defending Freedom to create a new license to discriminate against LGBTQ+ people," Robinson said. "Despite our opponents claiming this is a major victory, this ruling does not give unfettered power to discriminate. This decision does not mean that any LGBTQ+ person can be discriminated against in housing, employment or banking -- those protections remain enshrined with federal law."

Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan of New York, chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops' Committee for Religious Liberty, said the case "was never about discrimination. It was about moral disagreement."

"The government must allow room for people to disagree on hot-button issues," the cardinal said in a statement released late June 30. "It's even more important when the person disagreeing has an unpopular view."

"Ms. Smith is perfectly willing to design other kinds of websites for same-sex-attracted customers," Cardinal Dolan continued. "In the same way, the ministries of the Church provide goods and loving care to everyone in direct need of assistance, no questions asked. Problems only arise when the government tries to force us to support, by our words or actions, behavior that we believe is wrong."

The USCCB and other faith organizations filed a friend-of-the-court brief in support of the website designer's case. Those groups included the Colorado Catholic Conference, the General Council of the Assemblies of God, the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association and Samaritan's Purse.

In her statement, ADF's Waggoner said, "Lorie works with everyone, including clients who identify as LGBT."

"As the court highlighted, her decisions to create speech always turn on what message is requested, never on who requests it," she said. "The ruling makes clear that nondiscrimination laws remain firmly in place, and that the government has never needed to compel speech to ensure access to goods and services."

Waggoner said the decision was a "win for all Americans."

"The government should no more censor Lorie for speaking consistent with her beliefs about marriage than it should punish an LGBT graphic designer for declining to criticize same-sex marriage," she said. "If we desire freedom for ourselves, we must defend it for others."

The Supreme Court has in recent years expanded the legal rights of people who are LGBTQ+, notably in its Obergefell v. Hodges decision in 2015 legalizing same-sex marriages nationwide, and again in a 2020 ruling finding that a key provision of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 known as Title VII that bars job discrimination because of sex, includes LGBTQ+ workers, in a ruling also written by Gorsuch.

But the high court also has considered the cases of people who say they object to those unions in the course of their work on religious grounds. According to the catechism, the Catholic Church teaches that persons with homosexual inclinations are to be "accepted with respect, compassion, and sensitivity" and states, "Every sign of unjust discrimination in their regard should be avoided." The church, which does not morally approve of any sexual activity outside of marriage, holds marriage to be the lifelong, exclusive union of a man and a woman for the good of the spouses and the generation of human life.

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