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Supreme Court sides with Colorado-based Christian website designer in First Amendment case

The U.S. Supreme Court on Friday ruled that the state of Colorado cannot force a graphic designer to make websites with messages that go against her religious beliefs, citing the First Amendment.

Lorie Smith (Alliance Defending Freedom)

By Joe Mueller | The Center Square Jun 30, 2023 Updated Jun 30, 2023

(The Center Square) – The U.S. Supreme Court on Friday ruled that the state of Colorado cannot force a graphic designer to make websites with messages that go against her religious beliefs, citing the First Amendment.

In 303 Creative LLC v. Elenis, Lorie Smith, a Christian graphic designer based in Colorado, asked for an exemption to the state’s public-accommodation law that bars discriminatory sales. Smith wishes to create wedding websites only for straight couples, arguing the law compels her speech against her traditional religious beliefs on marriage in violation of the First Amendment.

“The First Amendment envisions the United States as a rich and complex place where all persons are free to think and speak as they wish, not as the government demands. Because Colorado seeks to deny that promise, the judgment [of the lower court] is Reversed,” said Justice Neil Gorsuch, who wrote the majority opinion in the 6-3 case.

Justice Sonia Sotomayor, writing for the minority, stated the ruling exempts a business from following state law.

“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,” Sotomayor wrote. “Specifically, the Court holds that the First Amendment exempts a website design company from a state law that prohibits the company from denying wedding websites to same-sex couples if the company chooses to sell those websites to the public. The Court also holds that the company has a right to post a notice that says, ‘no [wedding websites] will be sold if they will be used for gay marriages.’”

Gorsuch’s opinion for the majority showed chasm between the justices.

“It is difficult to read the dissent and conclude we are looking at the same case,” Gorsuch wrote. “… But none of this answers the question we face today: Can a State force someone who provides her own expressive services to abandon her conscience and speak its preferred message instead?”

The Alliance Defending Freedom, a conservative legal advocacy group representing Smith, said the ruling reaffirmed the government can’t force Americans to say things they don’t believe in.

“Disagreement isn’t discrimination, and the government can’t mislabel speech as discrimination to censor it,” ADF President and CEO Kristen Waggoner said in a statement. “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.”

The ADF also represented Colorado cake designer Jack Phillips, in a similar case that made its way to the Supreme Court that was narrowly ruled.

The Supreme Court agreed to take up the case in February 2022 and heard arguments last December.

Elected officials and advocacy groups from across the country responded to the court’s ruling.

“Sadly, the U.S. Supreme Court decided in favor of discrimination and against student loan relief today,” Colorado Gov. Jared Polis, who is the first gay man elected as a governor, said in a statement. “These misguided rulings come one day after the Supreme Court overturned decades of precedent and potentially stifled future educational opportunities. We are committed to building a Colorado for all where the powerful few do not control the freedoms of all Coloradans.”

Polis’s office added that the state’s anti-discrimination law “continues to be constitutional and this ruling does not change that.”

Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser argued the decision “threatens to destabilize our public marketplace and encourage all kinds of businesses—not just those serving weddings—to claim a First Amendment free speech right to refuse service to certain customers.”

Massachusetts Governor Maura Healey, who’s lesbian, called the decision “deeply disappointing and yet another example of the Supreme Court’s callous disregard for the wellbeing of the very communities that need protecting. The courts have long recognized that laws safeguarding customers from discrimination don’t infringe on the right to free speech.”

The Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression, a free speech legal advocacy group, touted the court’s decision as “a resounding victory for freedom of expression and freedom of conscience.”

“To cast the decision as a ‘loss’ for LGBTQ rights is a mistake that both misreads the facts and ignores the vital importance of freedom of conscience for all Americans,” FIRE added. “As the Court makes clear, nothing in today’s decision allows businesses like restaurants or movie theaters to refuse service to customers on the basis of protected class status.”

This story may be updated. Derek Draplin contributed to this story.

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