In a landmark victory for free speech, the Supreme Court on Friday struck down a Colorado law that would have punished a Christian graphic designer who declined to design a website for a same-sex wedding that violated her religious beliefs.
In a 6-3 decision in the case of 303 Creative LLC v. Elenis, the high court cited the First Amendment in ruling that Lorie Smith could not be forced by state civil rights law to design websites that run counter to her sincerely-held religious beliefs. Justice Neil Gorsuch wrote for the majority, which included Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito, Brett Kavanaugh, and Amy Coney Barrett, saying “no public accommodations law is immune from the demands of the Constitution.”
“The First Amendment prohibits Colorado from forcing a website designer to create expressive designs speaking messages with which the designer disagrees,” Gorsuch wrote.
Smith said she is willing to work with anyone regardless of their sexual orientation, but objected to being forced to build wedding websites for same-sex couples because same-sex marriage goes against her deeply held beliefs.
“There are some messages I can’t create no matter who requests them,” Smith said in December.
Smith said she delayed expanding her business to start designing wedding websites because she was worried her beliefs would bump up against a Colorado public accommodations law. Colorado argued that Smith simply wanted to discriminate against same-sex couples and said the public accommodations law governs the conduct, not the speech of a person running a Colorado business.
“Under Colorado’s logic, the government may compel anyone who speaks for pay on a given topic to accept all commissions on that same topic — no matter the message — if the topic somehow implicates a customer’s statutorily protected trait,” Gorsuch wrote for the majority.
Justice Sonia Sotomayor dissented, joined by Justices Elena Kagan and Ketanji Brown Jackson, calling the ruling “profoundly wrong” and arguing that the Constitution “contains no right to refuse service to a disfavored group.”
“Today is a sad day in American constitutional law and in the lives of LGBT people. The Supreme Court of the United States declares that a particular kind of business, though open to the public, has a constitutional right to refuse to serve members of a protected class. The Court does so for the first time in its history,” Sotomayor wrote.
“The immediate, symbolic effect of the decision is to mark gays and lesbians for second-class status,” she added.
Gorsuch spent some of his majority opinion heavily criticizing Sotomayor’s dissent.
“It is difficult to read the dissent and conclude we are looking at the same case,” Gorsuch wrote.
The question at hand is, “Can a State force someone who provides her own expressive services to abandon her conscience and speak its preferred message instead?” Gorsuch said. “When the dissent finally gets around to that question— more than halfway into its opinion—it reimagines the facts of this case from top to bottom,” he wrote.
“In some places, the dissent gets so turned around about the facts that it opens fire on its own position,” Gorsuch said.
The case is the most recent similar case coming out of Colorado.
In 2018, the Supreme Court ruled narrowly in favor of a Colorado baker who refused to make a wedding cake for a same-sex couple. In that case, the court reversed the Colorado Civil Rights Commission’s decision against Jack Phillips, owner of Masterpiece Cakeshop, saying the state had failed to be neutral on religion.
The narrow ruling in 2018 avoided addressing the larger issue of anti-discrimination laws potentially clashing with freedom of religion and speech, eventually leading to the 303 Creative case coming before the court.
“This will go down as one of the most important free speech cases in the history of the court,” legal scholar Jonathan Turley said on Fox News in response to Friday’s ruling.
“Many of us have argued that these cases should not be religion clause cases but free speech cases,” Turley said. “What happened here is that the court could have considered both issues but refused the religion clause claim and said that they were only going to look at free speech. And this is why, because Gorsuch is saying that we’ve always been clear — you can’t coerce people to say things.”
Turley also clarified that the court’s decision does not give businesses a license to discriminate against customers.
“These cases, Masterpiece Cakeshop as well as 303 Creative, do not change the public accommodation laws. You cannot be refused to go into stores and buy items that are pre-made, for example, based on your race or your status,” Turley said. “What the court is saying here is that with these types of creative products, it is speech.”
This is a breaking news story and will be updated.