In a move that pits laws against LGBTQ discrimination against freedom of speech under the First Amendment, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed on Tuesday to take up a case of a Christian web designer in Colorado who seeks to refuse to work with same-sex couples despite a state law requiring her to open to LGBTQ customers.
An orders list issued Tuesday lists the petition in 303 Creative v. Elenis, brought by Lorie Smith, as among the cases for which the Supreme Court has granted a writ of certiorari, or agreed to review. Although the vote tally isn’t included in the order the move would be consistent with expectations for the conservative 6-3 court after former President Trump remade the judiciary with the addition of U.S. Associate Justices Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh and Amy Coney Barrett.
The case bears similarities, and even originates from the same state, as a case brought by Jack Phillips, owner of Masterpiece Cakeshop, who refused to make a custom-made wedding cake for a same-sex couple based on religious objections despite requirements under Colorado law. The Supreme Court, however, issued a narrow decision based on the particular facts of that case that stopped short of a far-reaching carve-out for civil rights laws.
Alliance Defending Freedom, the anti-LGBTQ legal firm that also represented Phillips before the Supreme Court, is representing Smith in her case and in the petition seeking review argued Colorado law unfairly targets her for her religious beliefs.
“Lorie Smith faces real and imminent harm,” the petition says. “Five years after leaving her corporate position to open her own website-design business, she remains in limbo, unable to offer her design services for marriage celebrations—prohibited even from posting a statement about her marriage beliefs—and losing income.”
Smith filed the petition before the Supreme Court after the U.S. Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled against her last year, concluding in the decision “grave harms caused when public accommodations discriminate on the basis of race, religion, sex or sexual orientation.” The court found Colorado non-discrimination law withstands scrutiny under judicial review and is a generally applicable law that isn’t constitutionally vague or overly broad.
No same-sex couple as of now has alleged 303 Creative Services has denied them services because the company has yet to engage in wedding-related services over concerns over Colorado law. Per the decision from the Tenth Circuit, Smith is seeking to post a statement on its website stating the company “will not be able to create websites for same-sex marriages or any other marriage that is not between one man and one woman.”
With the Supreme Court term ending in June, it’s unlikely the high court would be able to schedule briefs and oral arguments before the justices adjourn for the summer, when U.S. Associate Justice Stephen Breyer has announced he would step down. It would then fall to whomever Biden has named as a replacement for Breyer to weigh in as one of the nine justices on the court. Biden has said he would name a Black woman for the role and Ketanji Brown Jackson, J. Michelle Childs and Leondra Kruger are the names most mentioned. A White House announcement could come as soon as this week.
The case will be a test of the breadth of the First Amendment, to which the Supreme Court has previously given substantial deference under legal precedent. For example, the Supreme Court determined in 1977 the state of New Hampshire couldn’t require residents to display the state motto on their license plates over objections to the messages.
Although the petition to the Supreme Court presented the question of whether it should overturn the 1990 decision in Employment Decision v. Smith, which determined states are able to enforce general applicable laws over objections based on freedom of religion, the court only took up the case on freedom of speech claims. It’s unlikely to address Smith.
Jennifer Pizer, senior counsel for the LGBTQ group Lambda Legal, said in a statement the Supreme Court should use the opportunity to deliver a ruling upholding the principles of non-discrimination laws and “reaffirm and apply longstanding constitutional precedent that our freedoms of religion and speech are not a license to discriminate when operating a business.”
“The constitutional protections for religious freedom and free speech were never intended as weapons of discrimination for those doing business with the general public,” Pizer said. “More than fifty years ago, the U.S. Supreme Court firmly condemned use of personal freedoms to excuse businesses’ discrimination. But the justices’ decision in Masterpiece Cakeshop lacked that clarity and invited discrimination. The Court can and should clear up that confusion by upholding the well-reasoned decision of the Tenth Circuit.”