In a blow to LGBT rights, the U.S. Supreme Court on Friday ruled that the constitutional right to free speech allows certain businesses to refuse to provide services for same-sex weddings, ruling in favor of a web designer who cited her Christian beliefs in challenging a Colorado anti-discrimination law.
The justices in a 6-3 decision authored by conservative Justice Neil Gorsuch overturned a lower court’s ruling that had rejected Denver-area business owner Lorie Smith’s bid for an exemption from a Colorado law that prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation and other factors.
Smith’s business, called 303 Creative, sells custom web designs. The dispute focused on protections for freedom of speech under the U.S. Constitution’s 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,” Gorsuch wrote.
The court’s three liberal justices dissented from the decision. In the dissent, liberal 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.”
The court acted on its final day of rulings in its term that began in October.
The case pitted the right of LGBT people to seek goods and services from businesses without discrimination against the free speech rights, as asserted by Smith, of artists – as she called herself – whose businesses provide services to the public.
Smith, who lives in the Denver suburb of Littleton, is an evangelical Christian who has said she believes marriage is only between a man and a woman. She preemptively sued Colorado’s civil rights commission and other state officials in 2016 because she said she feared being punished for refusing to serve gay weddings under Colorado’s public accommodations law.
The court has a 6-3 conservative majority. The liberal justices during oral arguments in the case in December said a decision favoring Smith could empower certain businesses to discriminate.
Smith and her lawyers have said she is not discriminating against anyone but objects to messages that contradict her Christian beliefs.
Colorado, civil rights groups and numerous legal scholars warned of a ripple effect if Smith won, allowing discrimination based not only on a business owners’ religious beliefs, but potentially racist, sexist and anti-religious views.
Public accommodations laws exist in many states, banning discrimination in areas such as housing, hotels, retail businesses, restaurants and educational institutions. Colorado first enacted one in 1885. Its current Anti-Discrimination Act bars businesses open to the public from denying goods or services to people because of race, gender, sexual orientation, religion and certain other characteristics.
Colorado argued that its Anti-Discrimination Act regulates sales, not speech, to ensure “equal access and equal dignity.” Smith thus is free to sell whatever she wants, including websites with biblical passages stating an opposite-sex vision of marriage.
President Joe Biden’s administration, supporting Colorado in the case, argued that Smith’s bid for an exemption went too far because she sought a right to refuse to create a wedding website of any kind for a same-sex couple, even a basic one simply stating logistical details.
Smith said last year, “My faith has taught me to love everyone, and that’s why I work with everyone through my business. But that also means I can’t create every message.”
Smith is represented by attorneys from the Alliance Defending Freedom, a conservative religious rights group.
The court has supported religious rights and related free speech claims in recent years in other cases. The justices backed LGBT rights in cases such as the 2015 decision legalizing gay marriage nationwide and the 2020 ruling that federal law barring workplace discrimination protects gay and transgender employees.
The justices issued the decision in Smith’s case the day after siding with another evangelical Christian plaintiff. In that case, the court the court in a 9-0 ruling bolstered the ability of employees to obtain accommodations at work for their religious practices, reviving a lawsuit by a former mail carrier accusing the Postal Service of discrimination after being disciplined for refusing to show up for work on Sundays.