Supreme Court hears free speech conflict over same-sex weddings

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

The problem is a Colorado website designer who claims the right to free speech to ignore the state’s anti-discrimination law and turn away gay couples seeking his 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.

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

In recent years, Alliance Defending Freedom, an Arizona-based advocacy group, has backed a series of lawsuits on behalf of Christians who own businesses but refuse to participate in gay weddings. They include a wedding pastry chef, a wedding photographer, a florist, and now, a website designer.

Lorie Smith says she’d like to expand her website design business to include weddings, but only if she can be sure she doesn’t need to work with a same-sex couple. She sued seeking such a right and lost before a federal judge and the Tenth Circuit Court in Denver.

The judges voted in February to hear his appeal in the case of 303 Creative vs. Elenis, and decide whether it violates the free speech clause of the First Amendment to “compel an artist to speak or remain silent.”

Her lawyers argue that she does not seek the right to discriminate against gay people in all cases, but only wants the right to avoid being required, in her opinion, to express support for contradictory same-sex marriages. their religion.

She “is willing to create custom websites for anyone, including those who identify as LGBT,” they wrote in their summary, “as long as their message does not conflict with their religious views. But she may not create websites that promote messages contrary to her faith, such as messages that condone violence or promote sexual immorality, abortion, or same-sex marriage.”

Colorado attorneys and the Justice Department disputed that claim. They said that refusing 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 could ask Smith “to provide them with a website using a design she has already created for other clients and simply substituting the couple’s names and their wedding logistics details,” they said. Rejecting them would be discrimination against the couple, not a restriction of expression, they argued.

Four years ago, the court split in a similar case involving a wedding cake baker. Shortly before his retirement, Judge Anthony M. Kennedy spoke for the court in the Masterpiece Cakeshop case, saying the baker and his religious beliefs had been unfairly treated by the state civil rights commission.

But that was a narrow opinion that didn’t decide whether the baker was entitled to free speech 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.

“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, legal director of Lambda Legal in Los Angeles. “Any ruling that allows our precious free speech rights to be turned into tools for discriminatory exclusion would make a mockery of the Constitution’s promises of equality in public life. Depending on the outcome of this case, the door could be thrown wide open for an escalation of discrimination, including in areas like medical services, accommodation, and transportation.

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