Supreme Court hears free-speech clash over same-sex weddings

The Supreme Court on Monday will hear arguments over whether a conservative Christian business owner has a First Amendment right to refuse to work with same-sex couples who want to get married.

It’s about a Colorado website designer who claims a right to free speech to ignore the state’s antidiscrimination law and turn away gay couples who use their services.

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

Although the Supreme Court has heard similar disputes in the past, it has not declared that business owners with strong religious beliefs have a constitutional right to discriminate against same-sex marriages.

In recent years, the Alliance Defending Freedom, an Arizona-based advocacy group, has backed a number of lawsuits on behalf of Christians in the business community who refuse to attend gay weddings. These include a wedding cake baker, a wedding photographer, a florist and now a website designer.

Lorie Smith says she’d love to expand her website design business into weddings, but only if she can be sure she won’t have to work with a same-sex couple. She sued for such a right and lost before a federal judge and the 10th Circuit Court in Denver.

Judges voted in February to hear her appeal in 303 Creative v. Elenis and decide whether she violates the First Amendment’s free speech clause to “force an artist to speak or remain silent.”

Her lawyers argue that she does not seek a right to discriminate against gay people in every case, but only wants to avoid the right she believes to have to support 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 letter, “provided their message does not conflict with their religious views.” But she cannot create websites that spread messages contrary to her beliefs, such as messages condoning violence or promoting sexual immorality, abortion or same-sex marriage.”

Attorneys 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 include language.

They said a gay couple could ask Smith “to provide them with a website that uses a design she’s already created for other clients and simply replaces the couple’s names and the logistical details of their wedding,” they said . Rejecting them would be discrimination against the couple, not a language restriction, they argued.

Four years ago, the court was at odds in a similar case involving a wedding cake baker. Shortly before his retirement, Judge Anthony M. Kennedy spoke in 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 didn’t determine whether the baker had a right of free speech not to bake 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 activists fear a right-to-discriminate ruling in the new Colorado case could result in further discrimination against LGBTQ customers.

“Each of us has the right 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 at Lambda Legal in Los Angeles. “Any decision that allows our precious rights of free speech 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 thrown open to escalating discrimination, including in areas such as medical care, housing and transportation.” Supreme Court hears free-speech clash over same-sex weddings

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