Supreme Court rules for designer who doesn’t want to make wedding websites for gay couples
In a defeat for gay rights, the Supreme Court’s conservative majority ruled on Friday that a Christian graphic artist who wants to design wedding websites can refuse to work with same-sex couples. One of the court’s liberal justices wrote in a dissent that the decision’s effect is to “mark gays and lesbians for second-class status” and that it opens the door to other discrimination.
The court ruled 6-3 for designer Lorie Smith despite a Colorado law that bars discrimination based on sexual orientation, race, gender and other characteristics. Smith had argued that the law violates her free speech rights.
Smith’s opponents warned that a win for her would allow a range of businesses to discriminate, refusing to serve Black, Jewish or Muslim customers, interracial or interfaith couples or immigrants. But Smith and her supporters had said that a ruling against her would force artists — from painters and photographers to writers and musicians — to do work that is against their beliefs.
Justice Neil Gorsuch wrote for the court’s six conservative justices that 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.” Gorsuch said that the court has long held that “the opportunity to think for ourselves and to express those thoughts freely is among our most cherished liberties and part of what keeps our Republic strong.”
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.” She was joined by the court’s two other liberals, Justice Elena Kagan and Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson.
Sotomayor said that the decision’s logic “cannot be limited to discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity.” A website designer could refuse to create a wedding website for an interracial couple, a stationer could refuse to sell a birth announcement for a disabled couple, and a large retail store could limit its portrait services to “traditional” families, she wrote.
The head of Minnesota’s civil rights enforcement agency said the state is evaluating how it will react to the ruling.
“The U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in 303 Creative, Inc. v. Elenis comes at a time when numerous states across the country have newly passed laws denying rights to LGBTQIA+ community members and when LGBTQIA+ individuals continue to face violence and hate in our communities.
“In Minnesota, we are not in the business of creating second-class community members. That principle is as true today as it was yesterday.
“The Minnesota Department of Human Rights affirms that freedom from discrimination is a civil right. In the weeks and months ahead, our Department will determine how to continue to uphold this essential value consistent with the new precedent from the U.S. Supreme Court.”Minnesota Department of Human Rights Commissioner Rebecca Lucero
“We’re deeply disappointed on the Supreme Court’s ruling on 303 Creative,” said Kat Rohn, the executive director of OutFront Minnesota. “I think for me, it’s just a really clear reminder that we can’t rely on anyone, any court or system to protect and uphold our rights.”
Rohn has been watching the case closely. The ruling falls on the last day of Pride month.
“Our immediate concern is this will lead to further litigation and will give a green light to individuals who wish to discriminate against LGBTQ folks,” said Rohn.
The decision also comes as the LGBTQ+ community faces legislation in states across the country limiting access to gender-affirming care.
“We’ve had certainly one of the worst years on record nationally for anti-LGBTQ legislation across the country and things like the Club Q shooting are still really present on folks’ minds,” said Rohn. “This decision along with that policy and rhetoric and direct violence that our community has experienced has put us all in a really vulnerable place.”
“For the most part, it’s not going to have an impact on most transactions,” said Mike Steenson, a professor at Mitchell Hamline School of Law. “It’s just when someone is engaged in some element of creativity and that creativity is being diverted to a purpose that that person disagrees with. Now the second question, the impact on dignity is simply immeasurable.”
President Joe Biden said the court’s decision undermines freedom from discrimination protections.
“In America, no person should face discrimination simply because of who they are or who they love. The Supreme Court’s disappointing decision in 303 Creative LLC v. Elenis undermines that basic truth, and painfully it comes during Pride month when millions of Americans across the country join together to celebrate the contributions, resilience, and strength of the LGBTQI+ community. While the Court’s decision only addresses expressive original designs, I’m deeply concerned that the decision could invite more discrimination against LGBTQI+ Americans. More broadly, today’s decision weakens long-standing laws that protect all Americans against discrimination in public accommodations – including people of color, people with disabilities, people of faith, and women.
“My administration remains committed to working with our federal enforcement agencies to rigorously enforce federal laws that protect Americans from discrimination based on gender identity or sexual orientation. We will also work with states across the country to fight back against attempts to roll back civil rights protections that could follow this ruling. And we will accelerate our march towards full equality for every American.
“When one group’s dignity and equality are threatened, the promise of our democracy is threatened and we all suffer. Our work to advance equal rights for everyone will continue. That is why we must pass the Equality Act, which will enshrine civil rights protections for LGBTQI+ Americans in federal law and strengthen public accommodations protections for all Americans. I urge Congress to swiftly send this legislation to my desk.”President Joe Biden
The decision is a win for religious rights and one in a series of cases in recent years in which the justices have sided with religious plaintiffs. Last year, for example, the court ruled along ideological lines for a football coach who prayed on the field at his public high school after games.
The decision is also a retreat on gay rights for the court. For nearly three decades, the court has expanded the rights of LGBTQ people, most notably giving same-sex couples the right to marry in 2015 and announcing five years later in a decision written by Gorsuch that a landmark civil rights law also protects gay, lesbian and transgender people from employment discrimination.
Even as it has expanded gay rights, however, the court has been careful to say those with differing religious views needed to be respected. The belief that marriage can only be between one man and one woman is an idea that “long has been held — and continues to be held — in good faith by reasonable and sincere people here and throughout the world,” Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote in the court’s gay marriage decision.
The court returned to that idea five years ago when it was confronted with the case of a Christian baker who objected to designing a cake for a same-sex wedding. The court issued a limited ruling in favor of the baker, Jack Phillips, saying there had been impermissible hostility toward his religious views in the consideration of his case. Phillips’ lawyer, Kristen Waggoner, of the Alliance Defending Freedom, also brought the most recent case to the court. On Friday, she said the Supreme Court was right to reaffirm that the government cannot compel people to say things they do not believe.
“Disagreement isn’t discrimination, and the government can’t mislabel speech as discrimination to censor it,” she said in a statement.
Smith, who owns a Colorado design business called 303 Creative, does not currently create wedding websites. She has said that she wants to but that her Christian faith would prevent her from creating websites celebrating same-sex marriages. And that’s where she runs into conflict with state law.
Colorado, like most other states, has a law forbidding businesses open to the public from discriminating against customers. Colorado said that under its so-called public accommodations law, if Smith offers wedding websites to the public, she must provide them to all customers, regardless of sexual orientation. Businesses that violate the law can be fined, among other things. Smith argued that applying the law to her violates her First Amendment rights. The state disagreed.
The case is 303 Creative LLC v. Elenis, 21-476.