Lorie Smith just wants to be able to run her website design business as she sees fit. The Colorado-based owner of 303 Creative devotes her time to projects she cares deeply about, from helping children with disabilities to animal shelters and veterans.
It’s when Smith wanted to expand her business to designing sites for weddings that her troubles with the government began.
Because of her strong beliefs that God intended marriage to be between a man and a woman, she wanted to include a message on her website explaining her choice not to create sites for same-sex weddings. Expressing that sentiment, however, runs afoul of her state’s anti-discrimination law, which includes explicit protections for sexual orientation and gender identity. If she did not abide by the law and design projects for all weddings, her business could face fines, investigations and other punitive action.
So Smith sued.
Once again, a creative professional from Colorado is before the U.S. Supreme Court, which hears oral arguments in Smith's case on Monday.
If this all sounds familiar, it’s because the rights at stake in this case frequently land in the courts.
It was only four years ago that the Supreme Court ruled in favor of Colorado baker Jack Phillips, who had refused to bake a cake for a same-sex wedding because of his views on marriage. The court’s decision was extremely narrow, focused only on how the state’s civil rights commission had shown hostility toward Phillips’ religious views. It didn’t address the larger questions the case raised. Because of that, Phillips is mired in yet another legal battle in a similar case.
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Competing liberties collide
It’s time for the court to settle the broader question related to the competing liberties at stake: the civil rights protections for LGBTQ individuals and the religious freedom of business owners.
In taking Smith’s case, the Supreme Court agreed to address this central point: “Whether applying a public-accommodation law to compel an artist to speak or stay silent violates the Free Speech Clause of the First Amendment.”
As more governments at the state and local level expand their anti-discrimination laws, cases like Smith’s are becoming increasingly prevalent.
All Americans should feel uncomfortable with the government deciding what messages we can convey – or not convey – even in a professional capacity.
Those who don’t think religious views on marriage remain relevant often paint creative professionals who want to refrain from expressing certain messages as hateful or bigots.
It’s important to keep in mind, though, that claims of discrimination can go both ways. For instance, an LGBTQ cake baker in Detroit was asked in 2020 to design a cake that expressed a negative message about gay marriage. While she baked the cake, she did not include the requested sentiment. The individual who ordered the cake never picked it up, although he tried to claim he had been discriminated against for his beliefs.
Surely, bakers like this one in Detroit should not be forced to create messages that violate what they believe. The same should apply to the Colorado cake designer – and to Smith.
A clear free speech case
Whether they're in vogue or not, deeply held religious beliefs have always had some of the highest protections in our Constitution. The same goes for our ability to speak without interference from the government.
While there has been robust debate over whether making a special cake counts as speech, Smith’s website design certainly does. The lower appeals court acknowledged this, although it still ruled against her.
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“I think on free speech grounds, this is a pretty easy and straightforward case,” Mark Rienzi, president and CEO of Becket, told me. “On basic free speech principles, Colorado can't make somebody write a website she doesn't want to make.”
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Smith's business is open to all people. It’s not about the person she's serving – it’s about the message she's being asked to express.
Whenever I write about these cases, I always hear from those who are scared that if exemptions can be found for religious business owners, then this will lead to LGBTQ people being denied service at a broader range of establishments.
That would absolutely be wrong, and our Constitution wouldn’t allow it.
Buying an ice cream cone or renting a hotel room is very different from asking a creative professional to fashion a cake or website celebrating a specific event, especially one with so much religious significance as marriage.
Court observers like Becket’s Rienzi are hopeful this case will finally settle some of these First Amendments questions.
“I hope that happens because it'd be better for the country if the court just firmly resolves this issue and says the government can't make you go celebrate some events you don't want to celebrate,” Rienzi said.
Then maybe Lorie Smith can get back to doing the work she loves.
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Supreme Court hears 303 Creative case. Are free speech rights at risk?