By John Kruzel
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – In its ruling allowing an evangelical Christian web designer to refuse service for same-sex marriages, the U.S. Supreme Court again took an expansive view of religious interests at the expense of protecting LGBT people .
In a 6-3 ruling by its conservative majority on Friday, the court backed Lorie Smith, owner of a Denver-area web design company called 303 Creative. She sued the Colorado Civil Rights Commission in 2016 because she said she feared punishment for refusing to serve same-sex marriages under a state law that prohibits open businesses in public to deny goods or services to people because of race, gender, sexual orientation, religion and certain other characteristics.
The ruling, citing the US Constitution’s First Amendment protections for free speech, said Colorado cannot force Smith to create speech she opposes.
Although framed in court as a free speech claim, Smith’s case shares features with other recent clashes between religiously motivated activity and civil rights laws.
“We have seen a dramatic expansion of the rights of conservative religious communities that has had a negative impact on equality rights, certainly for LGBTQ people,” said Elizabeth Platt, director of the Law, Rights and Religion Project at the Columbia Law School.
Colorado is one of 22 U.S. states that have passed measures explicitly prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity in public places.
Smith, who said she opposes same-sex marriage based on her Christian beliefs, was represented by the Alliance Defending Freedom, a conservative religious rights group.
“The court reiterated that it is unconstitutional for the state to eliminate from the public square ideas it does not like, including the belief that marriage is the union of husband and wife,” said Kristen Waggoner, president of the group that argued the case in court.
“Disagreement is not discrimination, and the government cannot label speech as discrimination to censor it,” Wagoner added.
Alliance Defending Freedom has represented other high-profile litigants before the judges, including Colorado baker Jack Phillips, who refused, because of his Christian beliefs, to bake a wedding cake for a gay couple.
In its 2018 7-2 decision in Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission, the court ruled that the commission displayed unconscionable hostility to religion when it found that Phillips violated state anti-discrimination law by pushing away two men who were to be married.
The judges in that case did not make a final ruling on when people can seek exemptions to anti-discrimination laws based on religion. Still, the ruling illustrated a disparity in how the court views protections for LGBT people versus competing conservative Christian interests, Platt said.
“The court treated Jack Phillips’ allegation of discrimination with extreme deference and sensitivity, while completely glossing over the discrimination against same-sex couples in this case,” Platt said.
DECISION IN FACILITY
In 2021, the court decided another dispute involving tensions between equality protections and religious freedom.
In Fulton v. City of Philadelphia court, in a 9-0 decision, embraced religious rights over LGBT rights, siding with a Catholic Church-affiliated agency that sued after Philadelphia refused to place children in foster care with the organization because it prohibited it. sexual couples to apply to become foster parents.
The composition of the court changed with the retirement in 2018 of Justice Anthony Kennedy, who was replaced by Justice Brett Kavanaugh, one of three conservatives appointed by former Republican President Trump, as well as Justices Neil Gorsuch — the author of Friday’s decision — and Amy Coney Barrett.
Kennedy was the swing vote on what was then a 5-4 Conservative majority court. He stood out among conservatives for his embrace of sympathy both for conservative Christian causes and for what are sometimes called the “dignity interests” of marginalized groups, including LGBT people.
Kennedy underscored the dignity of same-sex couples in his landmark 5-4 decision in Obergefell v. Hodges who legalized same-sex marriage nationwide in 2015.
Platt said that “if Obergefell had been argued in this Supreme Court, I don’t think it would happen the same way.”
The court underwent another sea change in its ideological makeup in 2020 when Trump nominated Barrett to succeed the late liberal Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Barrett’s addition gave him a 6-3 conservative margin and recalibrated how he weighed conservative Christian causes against the dignity interests of those protected by civil rights laws.
“This court continues to advance the agenda of religious extremists who are trying to force us all to live by their narrow beliefs,” said Rachel Laser, president of the secular group Americans United for Separation of Church and State.
Following Friday’s decision, Smith said: “I hope that regardless of what people think of me or my beliefs, everyone will celebrate the fact that the court has upheld the right of each of us to speak. freely.”
(Reporting by John Kruzel; Editing by Will Dunham)