The Supreme Court will hear the latest clash between Faith and Gay Rights

A Colorado graphic designer says she has a First Amendment right to refuse to create websites for same-sex marriages despite the state’s anti-discrimination law.

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Published December 4, 2022 Updated December 5, 2022, 9:46 a.m. ET

Follow our live coverage of the Supreme Court hearings that pit free speech against gay rights.

LITTLETON, Colo. — Ten years ago, a Colorado baker named Jack Phillips turned away a gay couple who had asked him for a wedding cake, saying that a state law prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation had to give way to them. faith

The dispute, a white-hot flashpoint in the culture wars, came to the Supreme Court. But Justice Anthony M. Kennedy’s narrow majority opinion in 2018 did not settle the question of whether the First Amendment allows discrimination by businesses open to the public based on the religious beliefs of their owners. Indeed, the opinion acknowledged that the court had merely kicked the can down the road and that it would have to decide “some future controversy involving facts similar to these.”

That debate has now arrived, and the facts are indeed similar. A graphic designer named Lorie Smith, who works just a few miles from Mr Phillips’ bakery, Masterpiece Cakeshop, has challenged the same law in Colorado on the same grounds.

“He’s an artist,” Ms Smith said of Mr. Phillips. “I am also an artist. We shouldn’t be punished for creating consistently with our convictions.”

The underlying arguments in the case, which will go before the Supreme Court on Monday, are as familiar as they are polarizing.

On one side are people who say the government should not force them to break their principles to make a living. On the other hand there are same-sex couples and others who say they are entitled to equal treatment from businesses open to the public.

Both sides say the consequences of the court’s ruling could be huge, although for different reasons. Ms Smith’s supporters say a ruling for the state would allow the government to force all kinds of artists to declare things that are contrary to their beliefs. Her opponents say a ruling in her favor would blow a hole through anti-discrimination laws and allow businesses involved in expression to refuse service to, say, Black people or Muslims based on hateful but sincere convictions.

The court that will hear those arguments has been transformed since the 2018 decision. After the retirement of Justice Kennedy later that year and the death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg in 2020, the Supreme Court has moved to r right and has been exceptionally ready to accept claims of religious freedom.

Furthermore, when the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade in June, Justice Clarence Thomas filed a concurring opinion calling for the removal of the right to same-sex marriage. Supporters of gay rights fear a ruling for Ms Smith will undermine that right, labeling same-sex marriages as second-class unions unworthy of legal protection.

The court had earlier opportunities to revisit the larger issues in the Masterpiece Cakeshop case, but rejected appeals from a Washington State florist and Oregon bakery owners who said they should not be required to create works for same-sex unions.

The decision to hear Ms. Smith’s case was apparently driven by several factors: an increasingly assertive six-justice conservative supermajority, a sense that Ms. Smith’s designs were more likely to be expression protected by the First Amendment and the wish of some magistrates at least. to undo or limit Obergefell v. Hodges, a 2015 decision establishing a right to same-sex marriage.

Smith, in an interview in his modest but cheerful studio in an office building in suburban Denver, sat next to a plaque that echoed a verse from the Bible: “I am God’s masterpiece.” She said she is happy to create graphics and websites for anyone, including L.G.B.T.Q. people. But her Christian faith, she said, did not allow her to create messages celebrating same-sex marriages.

“When I chose to start my own business as an artist to create customized expression,” he says, “I did not give up my First Amendment rights.”

Phil Weiser, Colorado’s attorney general, countered that there is no constitutional right to discriminate. “Once you open your doors to the public, you have to serve everybody,” he said. “You can’t turn people away based on who they are.”

The court decided Masterpiece Cake Shop on a peculiar basis that is not at issue in the new case, 303 Creative v. Elenis, No. 21-476. Justice Kennedy, writing for the majority in 2018, said that Mr Phillips had been treated unfairly by members of a civil rights commission who had made comments that were hostile to religion.

Mr. Phillips’ narrow victory left unresolved whether he had a constitutional right to refuse to create custom cakes for L.G.B.T.Q. people. Indeed, an appeals court in Colorado recently heard arguments in his appeal of a judgment against him in a case brought by a transgender woman.

In the Supreme Court, Mr Phillips had pursued claims based on his rights to free exercise of religion and freedom of speech. Ms. Smith also asked the Supreme Court to consider those two reasons, but the justices agreed to decide only “whether the application of public accommodation law to compel an artist to speak or remain silent violates the free speech clause of the First Amendment.”

Mr. Phillips and Ms. Smith are both represented by Alliance Defending Freedom, a conservative Christian law firm and advocacy group that has litigated many cases for clients who oppose abortion, contraceptive coverage, and gay and transgender rights.

Mr Weiser, the Colorado attorney general, said there was an important difference between the Masterpiece Cakeshop case and the new one. Mr. Phillips refused to serve an actual couple, David Mullins and Charlie Craig, who filed civil rights charges, saying they had been humiliated and humiliated. The details of the meeting, he said, were important in assessing the legal issues.

On the contrary, Ms Smith sued before facing any penalty.

“This is a fabricated case,” said Mr. Weiser. “There are no websites created for marriage. No one has been turned away. We are in a world of pure theories.”

Ms Smith countered that she should not have to risk fines for exercising her rights.

“If I continue to create for weddings that are consistent with my beliefs, the State of Colorado plans to come after me full force,” he said. “Rather than wait to be punished, I decided to stand up to defend my First Amendment rights. I shouldn’t have to be punished for challenging an unjust law.”

The two cases in Colorado are different in another way, at least in the eyes of some legal scholars, notably Dale Carpenter, a law professor at Southern Methodist University. In the Masterpiece Cakeshop case, Professor Carpenter filed a brief supporting the gay couple along with Eugene Volokh of the University of California, Los Angeles.

But in the new case, they took Ms Smith’s side. Professor Carpenter did that, he explained in an interview, partly because he had dedicated his career to the cause of promoting gay rights.

“It seems to me that the freedom of speech has been essential to the cause of L.G.B.T. rights,” he said. “It could not have progressed without the freedoms guaranteed by the First Amendment. I take these things to go hand in hand.”

Mr. Phillips’ cakes did not merit First Amendment protection, Professor Carpenter added, but Ms. Smith’s graphics and websites do.

“Cake making is not inherently expressive or a traditional expressive medium,” says Professor Carpenter. “People make cakes for taste or nutrition.”

The design work of Ms. Smith is different, he said. It included, he said, “inherently expressive activities, including through the usual means of communication such as writing or speaking.”

Kristen K. Waggoner, a lawyer with Alliance Defending Freedom, agreed that the two cases are different.

“This is an easier case than Masterpiece,” he said. “Here we have pure speech.”

David D. Cole, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union, which represented the couple in Masterpiece Cakeshop, said that was not the point. As long as Ms. Smith’s company is open to the public and selling a particular service, she said, it must abide by the state’s anti-discrimination laws.

A ruling in favor of Ms Smith and her company, 303 Creative, would have devastating consequences, Mr Cole said.

“If 303 Creative wins here, we’ll live in a world where any business with an expressive service can put up a sign that says ‘Women Underserved, Jews Underserved, Blacks Underserved,’ and rightfully claim a First Amendment. to do that,” he said. “I don’t think any of us want to live in that world, and I don’t think the First Amendment requires us to live in that world.”

A divided three-judge panel of the US Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit, in Denver, ruled against Ms Smith even as it accepted most of her arguments.

“The creation of matrimonial websites is pure speech,” Judge Mary Beck Briscoe wrote for the majority, and Colorado’s anti-discrimination law forces Ms. Smith and her company “to create custom websites that they would not otherwise have.”

That meant, Judge Briscoe wrote, that the anti-discrimination law had to survive the most demanding form of judicial scrutiny, one requiring the state to demonstrate a compelling interest and demonstrate that the law had ‘to be narrowly tailored to address that interest. Judge Briscoe said Colorado has proven both.

“Colorado has a compelling interest in protecting the dignity interests of members of marginalized groups and their material interests in accessing the commercial marketplace,” Judge Briscoe wrote.

In dissent, Chief Judge Timothy M. Tymkovich said “the majority takes the extraordinary — and novel — position that the government could compel Ms. Smith to produce messages that violate her conscience.”

“It seems we’ve moved from ‘live and let live,'” he wrote, “to ‘you can’t say that.'”

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