WASHINGTON – The Supreme Court on Tuesday said it will decide whether a web designer may decline to make wedding websites for same-sex couples in a case that could have sweeping implications in the battle over LGBTQ rights.
Ever since the nation’s highest court handed down a landmark ruling in 2015 legalizing same-sex marriage, the justices have been confronted with a litany of lawsuits involving wedding photographers, bakers and other matrimonial businesses that claim serving same-sex couples would violate their constitutional rights.
The court has so far largely dodged the fundamental question presented by those cases: Whether the decision to deny service to LGBTQ customers because of religious objections is illegal discrimination – or is, instead, protected by the First Amendment.
Lorie Smith, a graphic and website designer in Denver, Colo., intends to develop sites for weddings but wants to decline to provide her services for same-sex weddings. She sued the Colorado Civil Rights Division and other state entities in 2016, asserting Colorado’s anti-discrimination laws violate her First Amendment rights to free speech and to practice her religion.
In agreeing to take the case Tuesday, the high court limited the appeal to consideration of only the free speech claims.
A panel of the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit in Denver last year sided with Colorado. The 2-1 decision found the state has a compelling interest in protecting members of the LBGTQ community from discrimination.
The anti-discrimination law at issue is the same that was challenged by Colorado baker Jack Phillips in a case decided by the Supreme Court four years ago.
A divided court in 2018 absolved Phillips of discrimination claims for refusing to create a custom wedding cake for a same-sex couple, ruling that the state had exhibited “religious hostility” against him. But the court never resolved the broader question of whether opponents of same-sex marriage, including florists, photographers and videographers, can refuse commercial wedding services to LGBTQ couples.
The government cannot impose regulations that are hostile to citizens’ religious beliefs, a 7-2 majority wrote in the decision. But the ruling was limited to Colorado’s treatment of Phillips specifically. It was also handed down when the high court included Associate Justice Anthony Kennedy, a swing vote who also championed LGBTQ rights.
Since then both Kennedy, who wrote the majority opinion in the Masterpiece Cakeshop case involving Phillips, and Associate Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, a reliable liberal vote, have been replaced by associate justices nominated by President Donald Trump.
In July, the high court turned away a similar challenge from a Washington State florist who declined to create an arrangement for a same-sex wedding. Three conservative justices – Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito and Neil Gorsuch – said they would have taken the case. The move instead left in place a state court ruling against the florist.