A Colorado web developer refusing to offer website services to a same-sex couple has found himself at the center of a national debate over the legal limits of free speech and anti-discrimination laws.
The Supreme Court said on Tuesday it would take up the website designer’s case which, if found in its favor, could change legal precedent regarding whether companies are legally allowed to refuse services to groups on the basis of religious exemptions. Critics fear a ruling in favor of the web developer could have dire consequences for LGBTQ people across the country.
Developer Lorie Smith, owner of 303 Creative, claims a Colorado anti-discrimination law violated her First Amendment rights to speech and religious expression by requiring her to provide services to a couple of the same sex despite his religious objections. Colorado Senior Kudge Mary Beck Briscoe, however, argued that allowing Smith to refuse services “would relegate LGBT consumers to a lower market,” notes Law Week Colorado. 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 a man and a woman, and she cannot create messages inconsistent with her faith. Christian,” Smith and his company pleaded in court records. “But the Colorado Anti-Discrimination Act (CADA) requires to create websites celebrating same-sex marriage and bans its explanatory statement.
Although Smith framed much of his case around his assertions of religious exemptions, the Supreme Court seems more interested in hearing the case to rule on its potential First Amendment implications, Politico notes. The court is expected to hear the case during its nine-month term from October.
The web developer‘s case will see the Supreme Court revisit the legal tension between religious freedom and anti-discrimination laws for the last time in 2018. In this case, the court ruled in favor of a Colorado baker who refused to make a personalized wedding cake. for a gay couple. As in the web designer‘s case, the Colorado baker claimed that the state’s anti-discrimination laws violated his First Amendment protections by requiring him to use his “talents” to convey a message going to the against his religious beliefs. The baker reportedly rejected the couple’s request before even discussing the design of the cake.
While the court ruled in favor of the baker, legal experts said they had largely avoided broader constitutional issues around free speech, deciding instead to focus on alleged hostility from the Commission of Colorado’s civil rights to religion in its decision. That means The Web Developer‘s Case could serve as a kind of sequel in 2018, although there seems to be a lot more interest in delving into the core legal issues.
The details of 2018 and 2022 may look similar, but the faces of the Supreme Court do not.
Since the Baker decision, the court has welcomed three new conservative justices, all appointed during the Trump administration. The new appointments leave the court split 6-3 in favor of the Tories from a 5-4 split four years earlier. While it’s impossible to fully predict how any given judge will decide a case, the court’s reshuffle has worried some progressive observers the new, more conservative court might feel emboldened to come out in favor of free speech rather than of discrimination. Constitutional rulings on these grounds could have huge implications, potentially bringing a litany of anti-discrimination laws under new scrutiny and threatening protections for LGBTQ people.