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, who owns a design business called 303 Creative, had argued that the law violates her free speech rights. She does not currently create wedding websites but has said she wants to but her Christian faith would prevent her from creating websites celebrating same-sex marriages.
And that’s where she runs into conflict with state law. The case is 303 Creative LLC v. Elenis.
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.
"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," Justice Neil Gorsuch wrote for the court's six conservative justices.
Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote a dissent that was joined by the court’s other liberals. “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 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 viewed by same as a step backwards for homosexual rights after the court gave same-sex couples the right to marry in 2015. It announced five years later that a landmark civil rights law also protects homosexual, lesbian and transgender people from employment discrimination. That civil rights law decision was also written by Gorsuch.
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 Jack Phillips, a Christian baker also from Colorado, who objected to designing a cake for a same-sex wedding.
Colorado has a so-called public accommodation law forbidding businesses open to the public from discriminating against homosexual, lesbian, and transgender customers. Colorado said 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, and Phillips himself was found guilty by the Colorado Civil Rights Commission.
Back in 2018, the Supreme Court issued a limited ruling in favor of Phillips saying there had been impermissible hostility toward his religious views by the Civil Rights Commission. That ruling was 7-2 but was viewed as a narrow one that did not decide the lingering issue of First Amendment rights by Christians vs. non-discrimination laws that favor homosexuals.
Phillips' lawyer, Kristen Waggoner, of Alliance Defending Freedom, also brought the most recent case to the court. In a statement after the ruling, the attorney said the court recognized that Smith works with LGBT clients but has drawn the line at the message the Colorado law required her to deliver.
"The court reiterated that it’s unconstitutional for the state to eliminate from the public square ideas it dislikes, including the belief that marriage is the union of husband and wife," Waggoner said in a statement. "Disagreement isn’t discrimination, and the government can’t mislabel speech as discrimination to censor it."