Designer ready for high court fight over gay couple exclusion

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LITTLETON, Colo. — A Christian web designer who argues her religious beliefs prevent her from creating marriage websites for same-sex couples said Monday her legal battle in the U.S. Supreme Court next month will center on protection of everyone’s right to freedom of expression.

Lorie Smith spoke about her case, which is the latest clash over religion and LGBTQ rights to reach the nation’s highest court, as she sat in the office she uses for her design business in the suburbs from Denver to Littleton. The room was decorated with two crosses and a wooden plaque on which was inscribed a verse from Ephesians: “I am the masterpiece of God”.

Smith claims Colorado’s anti-discrimination law violates her right to free speech over same-sex marriages, which she says are contrary to her Christian values. Although Smith has yet to expand her services to include wedding websites with her company, 303 Creative, she said she has dreamed of doing so since she was a child.

“Colorado censors and compels my speech,” said Smith, who identifies as a non-denominational evangelical. “Forcing me to communicate, celebrate and create messages that go against my core beliefs.”

His argument is debatable.

ACLU national legal director David Cole, who opposes Smith’s lawsuit, argues that the state’s anti-discrimination law simply requires companies to offer their services to everyone and does not limit speech . Smith would be within her rights to include a statement on her websites saying she disagrees with same-sex marriage, Cole said, but she cannot refuse to serve customers based on their sexual orientation .

For Cole, a decision in Smith’s favor would open Pandora’s box.

“If 303 Creative prevails here, then any company that can be called expressive, and that’s a lot of companies, can start putting up signs saying no Jews are served, no Christians are served, no blacks are served,” Cole said. “We had that practice during Jim Crow, I don’t think we would want that practice to come back.”

Smith’s case, which is due to be heard on Dec. 5, is coming before a U.S. Supreme Court that now has a majority of conservative justices. The court recently struck down women’s constitutional right to abortion and set new precedent for gun control regulation in a New York case.

Cole argues the designer still faces an uphill battle because the court has disagreed with similar arguments in the past.

“If the court rules in favor of Lorie Smith, it should overturn a long line of precedents and break with an unbroken line of cases,” Cole said.

Smith, who says he has served LGBTQ clients, says the lawsuit is not about same-sex marriage or the client, only the freedom from being coerced into expressing ideas contrary to one’s beliefs. She thinks that a decision in her favor would protect everyone’s freedom of expression.

The court said it would only consider the free speech issue in Smith’s case. He said he would decide whether a law requiring an artist to speak or remain silent violates the First Amendment’s free speech clause.

The impetus to file her lawsuit challenging Colorado law, Smith said, was not just about her own cases, but also what she said was how the state pushed others of her faith to act against their beliefs, like the pastry chef Jack Phillips.

Phillips, who refused to bake a wedding cake for a gay couple in 2012, also took on Colorado in the high court. A 2018 U.S. Supreme Court ruling gave Phillips a partial victory, saying the Colorado Civil Rights Commission acted with an anti-religious bias against Phillips. But it did not rule on the broader issue of whether a company can raise religious objections to refuse to serve LGBTQ people.

“I don’t think I really have any choice but to stand up for not only my right, but also the rights of others,” Smith said. “That includes myself as an artist and it also includes the LGBT web designer who shouldn’t be forced to create and design messaging that opposes same-sex marriage.”

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Jesse Bedayn is a member of the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places reporters in local newsrooms to report on underreported issues.

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