U.S. Supreme Court leans toward web designer with anti-gay marriage stance

  • This case focuses on the First Amendment of the US Constitution
  • Colorado says the plaintiff is seeking a license to discriminate
  • The court, with a 6-3 conservative majority, must rule by June

WASHINGTON, Dec 5 (Reuters) – A conservative majority on the U.S. Supreme Court is poised to rule on Monday that a Christian web designer has the right to refuse to offer services for same-sex marriages, while liberal justices said they would allow some businesses to do so. discrimination based on the constitutional protection of free speech.

The courts heard heated arguments in Denver-area business owner Lori Smith’s appeal for an exemption from a Colorado law that prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation and other factors. Lower courts ruled in Colorado’s favor.

Conservative justices supported Smith’s view that businesses that provide creative services such as web design are protected by the First Amendment’s guarantee of government abridgment of free speech from being forced to express messages through their work that they oppose. , are protected. The court has a 6-3 conservative majority.

Smith, an evangelical Christian who runs a web design business called 303 Creative, said he believes marriage should be limited to opposite-sex couples. He tentatively sued the Colorado Civil Rights Commission and other state officials in 2016 because he feared he would be penalized for refusing to officiate same-sex weddings under Colorado’s public accommodations law.

Colorado’s anti-discrimination law prohibits businesses from denying goods or services to people based on race, gender, sexual orientation, religion, or certain other characteristics.

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Liberal courts have offered a variety of scenarios to show how a ruling that incorporates Smith’s arguments could allow businesses claiming artistic rights not only against LGBT people, but also based on race. to discriminate based on gender, disability and other factors.

Conservative Justice Clarence Thomas questioned how public accommodation laws could regulate speech, noting that Smith’s business was “not a hotel, it’s not a restaurant, it’s not a riverboat or a train.”

Public accommodation laws exist in many states that prohibit discrimination in areas such as housing, hotels, retail businesses, restaurants, and educational institutions.

The case gives Supreme Court conservatives another opportunity to exercise their power after recent landmark decisions limiting abortion rights and expanding gun and religious rights.

‘BLACK SNOW’

Liberal Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson suggested that Smith’s ruling could allow a professional photographer to remove black children from a nostalgic Christmas photo with Santa Claus designed after the 1940s, a time of racial segregation in parts of America. because “they try to get the feeling of a certain period”.

Kristen Waggoner, Smith’s attorney, doubted that such a scenario merited free speech, but said, “there are hard lines to draw, and this could be a fringe case.”

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Conservative Justice Samuel Alito asked whether a Colorado law would require a “black Santa” to have his photo taken with a child dressed as a white supremacist gang, the Ku Klux Klan. Colorado Attorney General Eric Olson rejected that example, saying such clothing “is not a protected property under public accommodation laws.”

After liberal Attorney General Elena Kagan pointed out that the analysis would be the same regardless of the child’s race, Alito quipped: “You see a lot of black kids in Ku Klux Klan uniforms, right?”

Businesses protected by free speech protections from anti-discrimination laws include photographers, painting, writing and video services, Wagoner said. He told the court in a written brief that bartenders, waiters and waitresses generally don’t because they don’t create speech, “although that’s certainly not always the case.”

Olson said Smith was seeking a “license to discriminate” and that her arguments allowed exemptions not just for religious beliefs, but for “all kinds of racist, sexist, and hateful views.” Olson said the Colorado law targets discriminatory sales by businesses like Smith.

“A company can sell websites that only have biblical quotes about marriage between a man and a woman, just like a Christmas store can sell only Christmas-related items. A company can’t avoid serving same-sex couples. It tries to, to work here, just as a Christmas store can’t advertise, “No Jews allowed,” Olson said.

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Wagoner said the Colorado law forces Smith to “create the speech, not just sell it.”

Liberal Justice Sonia Sotomayor suggested that any business involved in artistic expression could also refuse service if they objected to interracial marriage or the disabled.

– Where is the line? Sotomayor Waggoner asked.

Alito asked about an example of someone offering custom speeches or wedding vows.

“Can they be forced to swear or write words that support things they hate?” Alito asked.

The court has increasingly sided with religious rights and free speech claims in recent years, though it has upheld LGBT rights in other cases, such as a landmark 2015 ruling on same-sex marriage law across the country.

President Joe Biden’s administration of Colorado supported the case. The decision is expected at the end of June.

In 2018, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of Jack Phillips, a Denver Christian baker who refused to make a wedding cake for a same-sex couple on religious grounds. But in this case it stopped short of creating freedom of speech into anti-discrimination laws. Like Phillips, Smith is represented by the Alliance Defending Freedom, a conservative religious right group.

Reporting by Andrew Chung in Washington and Nate Raymond in Boston; Edited by Will Dunham

Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

Nate Raymond

Thomson Reuters

Nate Raymond reports on federal court and litigation. He can be reached at [email protected]

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