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Supreme Court backs right to not make same-sex wedding websites

Major LGBT rights case could weaken anti-discrimination laws nationwide

Protesters in December jockey for position before cameras in front of the Supreme Court during oral arguments in a case about a Colorado anti-discrimination law and same-sex wedding websites.
Protesters in December jockey for position before cameras in front of the Supreme Court during oral arguments in a case about a Colorado anti-discrimination law and same-sex wedding websites. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

The Supreme Court sided Friday with the owner of a company who refuses to build websites for same-sex weddings because of her religious beliefs, in a major LGBT rights case that could weaken anti-discrimination laws nationwide.

In a 6-3 opinion along ideological lines, the conservative justices in the majority found that a Colorado law forces the company owner to face sanctions for expressing her own beliefs, something that abridges free speech protections under the First Amendment.

The case centers on 303 Creative owner Lorie Smith, who says her religious belief is that marriage is between one man and one woman. Smith argues the Colorado Anti-Discrimination Act blocks her from posting an explanation for the reasons she wouldn’t provide wedding websites to same-sex couples.

Justice Neil M. Gorsuch wrote the majority opinion, which reversed an opinion from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit that found the anti-discrimination law was not unconstitutionally vague or overbroad.

Gorsuch wrote that countless other creative professionals could be “forced to choose between remaining silent, producing speech that violates their beliefs, or speaking their minds and incurring sanctions for doing so.”

“In this case, Colorado seeks to force an individual to speak in ways that align with its views but defy her conscience about a matter of major significance,” Gorsuch wrote in the majority opinion.

Justice Sonia Sotomayor, in a dissenting opinion joined by Justices Ketanji Brown Jackson and Elena Kagan, said Colorado’s law targets conduct and not speech.

Sotomayor wrote that the act of discrimination “has never constituted protected expression under the First Amendment,” and the Constitution holds no right to refuse service to “a disfavored group.”

“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.

The website case follows on a Supreme Court case out of Colorado, where a baker challenged a lower court’s determination that he had discriminated against a same-sex couple for refusing to bake a cake for their wedding.

In that case, the justices ruled in 2018 that Colorado’s civil rights commission process violated the baker’s constitutional rights but did not rule on the underlying First Amendment issues.

The composition of the court has changed since then, and new conservative Justices Brett M. Kavanaugh and Justice Amy Coney Barrett joined with the majority opinion on Friday.

In filings before the court, Colorado officials had said the law’s accommodations clause requires companies open to the public to sell their services to all customers.

The officials argued the clause does not intend to “suppress any message” a business might want to express, but the law requires that the company “sell whatever product or service it offers to all regardless of its customers’ protected characteristics.”

Washington reacts

Reaction to the opinion cut along partisan lines, with conservatives praising it as a First Amendment win and progressives saying it opens the door for businesses to further discriminate against certain customers.

Republican Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, praised the Supreme Court decision and described it as a “victory for the First Amendment not just in Colorado, but all across the United States.”

“Before today’s ruling, the state of Colorado wanted to compel the speech of Christian artists and business owners who declined to use their God-given talents to celebrate views that run contrary to what their faith teaches,” he said.

President Joe Biden said Friday that he’s concerned the opinion could invite more discrimination against LGBTQ 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,” Biden said.

Biden said his administration is dedicated to working with enforcement agencies to apply federal laws that protect people from discrimination that’s tied to their gender identity or sexual orientation.

Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., said the opinion “erodes decades of progress established by the Court, Congress, and public sentiment,” and added that the ruling was by “the MAGA-right activist wing of the Supreme Court.”

“Refusing service based on whom someone loves is just as bigoted and hateful as refusing service because of race or religion,” Schumer said. “And this is bigotry that the vast majority of Americans find completely unacceptable.”

Kelley Robinson, president of the Human Rights Campaign, said Friday that the court’s decision is “a dangerous step backward, giving some businesses the power to discriminate against people simply because of who we are.”

“Despite our opponents claiming this is a major victory, this ruling does not give unfettered power to discriminate,” Robinson said.

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