WASHINGTON, Feb 22 (Reuters) – The U.S. Supreme Court took up a major new legal battle pitting religious beliefs against LGBT rights on Tuesday, agreeing to hear the claim on free speech from an evangelical Christian web designer from that cannot be enforced under Colorado anti-discrimination law. law to produce websites for same-sex marriages.
The judges agreed to hear Denver-area business owner Lorie Smith’s appeal of a lower court ruling that rejected her offer of relief from a Colorado law that prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation and other factors. The case follows a 2018 Supreme Court ruling in favor of a Denver-area Christian baker who refused on religious grounds to bake a wedding cake for a gay couple.
Smith’s case gives the judges a chance to answer a question that has been raised in other disputes, including the baker case, but has never been finally resolved: can people refuse to serve customers in violation of public accommodation laws based on the idea that performing a creative act like designing a website or baking a cake is a form of free speech under the First Amendment of the United States Constitution.
“The US Supreme Court has always held that anti-discrimination laws, like Colorado’s, apply to all businesses that sell goods and services. Businesses can’t turn away LGBT customers just because of who they are said Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser, a Democrat.
Colorado anti-discrimination law prohibits anyone from denying “goods, services, facilities, privileges, advantages, or accommodations” based on, among other things, sexual orientation, age, race, gender, and religion. Colorado is among 21 US states that have measures that explicitly prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity in public places.
These laws represent “a clear and present danger to the constitutionally protected liberties of all Americans and the very existence of a free and diverse nation,” said Kristen Wagoner, general counsel for the conservative Christian legal group Alliance Defending Freedom, which represents Smith.
“Colorado has armed its law to silence speech it disagrees with, to compel speech it approves, and to punish anyone who dares to disagree,” Wagoner added.
The Supreme Court, with its 6-3 conservative majority, has become increasingly supportive of religious rights and related free speech claims in recent years, even as it has endorsed LGBT rights in other cases.
The justices declined to address a separate question about whether Smith has a religious rights claim, also under the First Amendment. Smith had asked the court to strike down its landmark 1990 ruling that limited people’s ability to cite their religious beliefs when seeking exemptions from laws that apply to everyone.
VIEWS ON GAY MARRIAGE
Smith runs a web design business called 303 Creative that he wants to operate in accordance with his Christian faith. She believes that marriage should be limited to opposite-sex couples, a view shared by many conservative Christians.
Before adding wedding websites to the services she offered to clients, Smith sued the Colorado civil rights commission and other officials in 2016 over concerns she would be punished under anti-discrimination law.
Smith’s lawyers have said that any state action punishing her for refusing to design gay wedding websites violates her right to religious expression and her right to free speech.
Jennifer Pizer, senior counsel at LGBT rights group Lambda Legal, said the Supreme Court should “reaffirm and apply long-standing constitutional precedent that our freedoms of religion and expression are not a license to discriminate in operating a business.”
Colorado officials have said they never investigated Smith’s company and found no evidence that someone asked him to design a website for a same-sex wedding. Lower courts backed Colorado, including the Denver-based Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit in a July 2021 ruling.
The justices will hear oral arguments and decide the case in the Supreme Court’s next term, which begins in October and ends in June 2023.
The Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage nationwide in 2015 and in 2020 expanded protections for LGBT workers under federal law. The Supreme Court has had trouble resolving cases where conservative religious opposition to LGBT rights has been met with situations where LGBT people seek to exercise their own rights.
Smith’s appeal stems from a dispute similar to the one that sparked the 2018 Supreme Court ruling on limited legal grounds in favor of a Colorado baker named Jack Phillips. The court said in that case that the Colorado civil rights commission, which imposed sanctions on Phillips for discrimination, was motivated by anti-religious bias.
Similar legal fights have been fought in other states involving other small businesses, including owners of a wedding photographer and a calligrapher.
Reporting by Lawrence Hurley; Edited by Will Dunham
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