US Supreme Court to rule on web designer with anti-gay marriage stance

The court has a 6-3 conservative majority. The liberal justices during the argument said a decision favoring Smith could empower certain businesses to discriminate.

THE US Supreme Court (photo credit: REUTERS)
THE US Supreme Court
(photo credit: REUTERS)

The US Supreme Court on Friday is poised to rule on whether a Christian web designer from Colorado has a right to refuse to provide services for same-sex marriages based on constitutional free speech protections - a case that could upend state anti-discrimination laws.

During arguments in the case in December, the conservative justices appeared ready to rule in favor of Denver-area business owner Lorie Smith, who is seeking an exemption from a Colorado law that bars discrimination based on sexual orientation and other factors. Lower courts ruled in Colorado's favor.

The court has a 6-3 conservative majority. The liberal justices during the argument said a decision favoring Smith could empower certain businesses to discriminate.

The dispute, one of two major rulings the justices are expected to issue on the final day of decisions for their term that began in October, focuses on protections for freedom of speech under the US Constitution's First Amendment.

It pitted the right of LGBT people to seek goods and services from businesses without discrimination against the free speech rights, as asserted by Smith, of artists - as she called herself - whose businesses provide services to the public.

LGBTQ flag (credit: Wikimedia Commons)
LGBTQ flag (credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Smith, who lives in the Denver suburb of Littleton, is an evangelical Christian who has said she believes marriage is only between a man and a woman. She preemptively sued Colorado's civil rights commission and other state officials in 2016 because she said she feared being punished for refusing to serve gay weddings under Colorado's public accommodations law.

Smith and her lawyers have said she is not discriminating against anyone but objects to messages that contradict her Christian beliefs.

Colorado's stance

Colorado, civil rights groups and numerous legal scholars warned of a ripple effect if Smith won, allowing discrimination based not only on a business owners' religious beliefs, but potentially racist, sexist and anti-religious views.

Public accommodations laws exist in many states, banning discrimination in areas such as housing, hotels, retail businesses, restaurants and educational institutions. Colorado first enacted one in 1885. Its current Anti-Discrimination Act bars businesses open to the public from denying goods or services to people because of race, gender, sexual orientation, religion and certain other characteristics.

Colorado argued that its Anti-Discrimination Act regulates sales, not speech, to ensure "equal access and equal dignity." Smith thus is free to sell whatever she wants, including websites with biblical passages stating an opposite-sex vision of marriage.

President Joe Biden's administration, supporting Colorado in the case, argued that Smith's bid for an exemption went too far because she sought a right to refuse to create a wedding website of any kind for a same-sex couple, even a basic one simply stating logistical details.

Smith said last year, "My faith has taught me to love everyone, and that's why I work with everyone through my business. But that also means I can't create every message."

Smith is represented by attorneys from the Alliance Defending Freedom, a conservative religious rights group.

The Supreme Court has supported religious rights and related free speech claims in recent years in other cases. The justices backed LGBT rights in cases such as the 2015 decision legalizing gay marriage nationwide and the 2020 ruling that federal law barring workplace discrimination protects gay and transgender employees.