A Colorado web developer refusing to offer website services to a same-sex couple has found herself at the centre of a national debate over the legal limits of free speech and anti-discrimination laws.
The Supreme Court on Tuesday said it would take up the web designer’s case that, if ruled in her favour, could alter legal precedent around whether businesses are legally allowed to deny services to groups based on religious exemptions. Critics fear a ruling in the web developer’s favour could potentially have disastrous implications for LGBTQ people throughout the country.
The developer, 303 Creative owner Lorie Smith, claims a Colorado anti-discrimination law violated her First Amendment rights to speech and freedom of religious expression by compelling her to provide services to a same-sex couple despite her religious objections. Colorado Senior Kudge Mary Beck Briscoe however argued allowing Smith to decline services would, “relegate LGBT consumers to an inferior market,” Law Week Colorado notes. A federal appeals court ruled against Smith.
“Lorie seeks to bring glory to God by creating a unique expression that shares her religious beliefs, including her faith’s view that marriage is between one man and woman, and she cannot create messages inconsistent with her Christian faith,” Smith and her company argued in court records. “But Colorado’s anti-discrimination Act (CADA) requires her to create websites celebrating same-sex marriage and bans her explanatory statement.”
Though Smith framed much of her case around her assertions of religious exemptions, the Supreme Court appears more interested in hearing the case to rule on its potential First Amendment implications, Politico notes. The court is expected to hear the case sometime in its nine-month term starting in October.
The web developer’s case will see the Supreme Court re-examine the legal tension between religious freedom and anti-discrimination laws last litigated in 2018. In that case, the court famously ruled in favour of a Colorado baker who refused to bake a custom wedding cake for a gay couple. Like the web designer’s case, the Colorado baker claimed the state’s anti-discrimination laws violated his First Amendment protections by compelling him to use his “talents” to convey a message running counter to his religious beliefs. The baker reportedly rejected the couple’s request before ever discussing the cake’s design.
While the court ruled in favour of the baker, legal experts say they largely sidestepped larger constitutional questions around free speech, deciding instead to focus on the Colorado Civil Rights Commission’s alleged hostility to religion in its ruling. That means the web developer’s case could serve as a type of 2018 sequel, though one seems much more interested in digging into fundamental legal questions.
The 2018 and 2022 details may appear similar, but the faces on the Supreme Court do not.
Since the baker ruling, the court has welcomed three new conservative justices, all appointed under the Trump administration. Those new appointments leave the court split 6-3 in favour of conservative compared to the 5-4 split four years prior. Though it’s impossible to totally predict how any given justice will rule on a case, the court’s shakeup has some progressive observers concerned the new, more conservative court may feel emboldened to rule in favour of free speech over ant-discrimination. Constitutional rulings on these grounds could have huge implications, potentially drawing in a litany of anti-discrimination laws under new scrutiny and threatening protections for LGBTQ people.