US Supreme Court hears arguments challenging LGBTQ rights law

The United States Supreme Court’s conservative majority has signalled sympathy towards an evangelical Christian web designer whose business refuses to provide services for same-sex marriages.

The case pits LGBTQ rights against a claim that freedom of speech exempts artists from anti-discrimination laws.

On Monday, the justices heard more than two hours of spirited arguments in Denver-area business owner Lorie Smith’s appeal, which seeks an exemption from a Colorado law that bars discrimination based on sexual orientation and other factors. Lower courts ruled in favour of Colorado.

Smith, who runs a web design business called 303 Creative, contends that Colorado’s Anti-Discrimination Act violates the right of artists – including web designers – to free speech under the US Constitution’s First Amendment by forcing them to express messages they oppose through their work.

Smith, 38, has said she believes marriage should be limited to opposite-sex couples, a view shared by many conservative Christians. She preemptively sued Colorado’s civil rights commission and other state officials in 2016 because she feared she would be punished for refusing to serve gay married couples.

While the conservative justices indicated support for Smith’s stance, the liberal justices leaned towards Colorado’s arguments. The court has a 6-3 conservative majority.

Conservative Justice Samuel Alito asked about an instance in which someone offered customisable speeches or wedding vows.

“Can they be forced to write vows or speeches that espouse things they loathe?” Alito asked.

The liberal justices posed tough questions to Kristen Waggoner, the lawyer representing Smith. Justice Sonia Sotomayor said a ruling favouring Smith could allow a business like Smith’s to also decline to provide services if they objected to interracial marriages or disabled people getting married.

“Where’s the line?” Sotomayor asked.

Sotomayor said such a ruling would be the first time in the Supreme Court’s history that it allowed a business open to the general public to “refuse to serve a customer based on race, sex, religion or sexual orientation”.

Colorado Solicitor General Eric Olson said Smith is seeking a “license to discriminate”. Olson said her arguments would not just let a business owner decline to provide services because of a sincerely held religious belief, but also due to “all sorts of racist, sexist and bigoted views”.

Olson said the Colorado public accommodation law at issue targets the conduct of discriminatory sales by businesses like Smith’s.

“The company can choose to sell websites that only feature biblical quotes describing marriage as only between a man and a woman, just like a Christmas store can choose to sell only Christmas-related items. A company just cannot refuse to serve gay couples, as it seeks to do here, just as a Christmas store cannot announce, ‘No Jews allowed,’” Olson said.

President Joe Biden’s administration backed Colorado in the case. Deputy Solicitor General Brian Fletcher told the justices that, even if they are sympathetic to Smith’s own situation, she was seeking a “very sweeping” result that could allow businesses to reject customers on the unacceptable basis of race as well.

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