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Supreme Court appears set to back web designer in free speech case

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WASHINGTON (CNS) — In a case examining the scope of free speech protected by the First Amendment, the Dec. 5 Supreme Court ultimately appeared to favor a broad view of free speech.

And in this case, the speech implied what a graphic designer who builds websites shouldn’t have to say.

Colorado designer Lorie Smith, who runs a web design company called 303 Creative, says she shouldn’t have to create wedding websites for same-sex couples based on her beliefs Christians on marriage.

Colorado state law prohibits companies from discriminating based on sexual orientation. Smith argues that his First Amendment right to free speech exempts him from the law.

A protester displays a sign during a protest outside the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington on December 5, 2022, as judges hear arguments in the case of a Colorado web designer who refuses to create websites for same-sex marriages because of her Christian beliefs about traditional marriages. wedding. (CNS photo/Kevin Lamarque, Reuters)

But she lost her case in the lower court when the 10th United States Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the state had a compelling interest in protecting its citizens “from the harms of discrimination”.

Kristen Waggoner, the Alliance Defending Freedom lawyer representing Smith before the Supreme Court, specifically argued that companies whose work centers on expression benefit from First Amendment protections from being told things. that go against their personal convictions.

If Smith’s case sounds familiar, that’s because it’s similar to a recent case involving a Colorado baker who refused to make a custom wedding cake for a same-sex couple because of his religious beliefs.

In 2018, the Supreme Court ruled that the baker’s refusal to bake a wedding cake did not violate Colorado anti-discrimination law.

In its decision, the court did not specifically address First Amendment protections allowing businesses to deny customer requests based on the religious beliefs of owners.

A ruling in favor of the web designer in this case could give business owners wide leeway to refuse services based on their own beliefs and would override anti-discrimination laws.

The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, joined by the Colorado Catholic Conference and other faith groups, sided with the designer as it did with the baker five years ago. In their amicus brief, they said this case gave the court the opportunity to clarify free speech issues, he said the court had failed to do so in the previous case, Masterpiece Cakeshop v . Colorado Civil Rights Commission.

In this case, Smith didn’t refuse a favor like the baker did by refusing to bake a custom cake for the same-sex couple. Smith is asking the court to intervene before she even started designing wedding websites, saying she feared her refusal to design a same-sex marriage website would violate Colorado’s public housing law.

Some of the judges discussed hypothetical cases that could arise if they ruled in favor of the state by asking Colorado Solicitor General Eric Olson if people could be forced to write press releases for the Church of Scientology or whether a Black Santa Claus actor could be forced to pose with a child in Ku Klux Klan attire — incidents that Olson said would not apply under state law.

Conversely, Judge Sonia Sotomayor asked whether a decision in favor of the designer would mean that web designers could refuse to work with interracial couples or couples with disabilities.

The majority of judges seemed willing to provide narrow exemptions to discrimination laws.

Judge Clarence Thomas pointed out that this case was distinct from other public accommodation cases because of the speech aspect, stressing: “This is not a hotel, this is not a restaurant, this is not a river boat or a train.” Similarly, Judge Brett Kavanaugh asked how one would determine, even in the wedding industry, what kinds of services count as speech.

In response, Wagoner told the court that she wouldn’t be before them today representing a caterer, for example, but would likely be representing a designer of bespoke wedding cakes, recalling the previous court case.

The USCCB brief said it was “urgent for the court to clarify how the compelled speech doctrine applies to marriage salesman cases and other disputes.” He urged judges to do what they have done in the past: “Enforce the freedom of speech clause to protect religious speech, thereby enhancing freedom not only for religious people but for all of society.”

He also said the pending case “provides an appropriate and particularly important opportunity to re-invoke free speech protections to resolve the lingering tensions in marriage vendor cases and in today’s larger cultural context.” broadly” and implored the court to “protect individuals from forced speech and provide space in the public square for minority voices.

Catholicvote.org, the Thomas More Society, the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights and the Becket Fund also filed briefs on behalf of the marriage vendor.

DignityUSA, an unofficial Catholic support group for gay Catholics and their families, and New Ways Ministry, a Catholic ministry to LGBTQ people and their families, joined a brief filed by 30 religious and civil rights groups s opposing the case of the graphic designer.

“Creating this broad exemption would allow public companies to legally exclude customers based on their identity,” he said, adding that “instead of protecting the right of every citizen to purchase goods and services from businesses open to the public,” the proposed exemption “would further hurt the very people these civil rights laws were meant to protect.

Twenty states supported Smith in the friend of court briefs. They say they have public hosting laws on the books, but their laws exempt business people who make a living creating custom art. Twenty-two states back Colorado and have similar laws in place protecting people from discrimination, also backed by the Justice Department.

A decision in the case is expected at the end of June.


Follow Zimmermann on Twitter: @carolmaczim

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Copyright © 2022 Catholic News Service/United States Conference of Catholic Bishops

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