Explainer  Religious Liberty  Supreme Court

Explainer: Petition filed with U.S. Supreme Court in 303 Creative v. Elenis case

303 Creative

Since 2016, Lorie Smith, founder of the web design firm 303 Creative, has been in the process of challenging a Colorado law which violates her First Amendment rights. It is the same law that was used to target Jack Phillips and which led to the landmark Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission case.

Like Phillips, and like Barronelle Stutzman of the Arlene’s Flowers Inc. v. Washington case, Lorie Smith is a creative professional who serves anyone through her business. But, as Maureen Collins of Alliance Defending Freedom has said, “While she [Smith] will create web designs for anyone, she doesn’t create all messages. She can’t use her design skills and creativity to express messages that violate her deeply held religious convictions.” And therein lies the conflict. Colorado’s Anti-Discrimination Act is a law “that would force her to create messages with which she disagree[s],” a flagrant violation of Smith’s Constitutional rights. 

What is this case about?

At its core, this case is concerned with the constitutional rights of people of religious faith and the assurance that those who own and operate private businesses can do so according to their deeply held beliefs, without the threat of government coercion.

More specifically, 303 Creative v. Elenis is a case intended to challenge a Colorado state law “that forces her [Lorie Smith] to use her artistic talents to promote same-sex ceremonies” and that “forbids her and her studio from publicly expressing . . . her belief that marriage is the union of one man and one woman and why she can’t use her artistic talents to promote a same-sex marriage” (emphasis added). 

How did the case begin?

ADF attorneys filed a lawsuit in September 2016 that challenged the Colorado law in federal court. Recognizing the threat that portions of Colorado’s Anti-Discrimination Act posed to the exercise of Smith’s Constitutional rights, ADF filed a lawsuit on Smith’s behalf that’s commonly referred to as a “pre-enforcement challenge, which allows citizens to challenge a law that threatens their rights before the government enforces it against them.” 

Smith’s assessment was right — her ability to freely exercise her constitutional rights were at stake. Unfortunately, her 2016 challenge to Colorado law was unsuccessful. After nearly three years, said Collins, “a judge issued a final ruling allowing Colorado officials to force Lorie to design and publish websites promoting messages that conflict with her religious beliefs.”

What happened next?

In October 2019, Smith “appealed to the Tenth Circuit, asking it to reverse the lower court’s decision.” In November 2020, her case was heard by the 10th Circuit, which ultimately ruled against Smith, saying, in effect, “that Colorado can force Lorie to express messages and celebrate events that violate her faith.” 

It was a disappointing ruling for people of religious faith across this country. 

Where do things stand now?

On Sept. 24, 2021, ADF filed a petition with the U.S. Supreme Court asking it to hear Smith’s case. Citing the 10th Circuit court’s admission that the Colorado law “does compel speech based on viewpoint” and “create a double standard,” and its direct conflict “with the 8th and 11th Circuits, as well as the Arizona Supreme Court, which have all ruled that the government may not force artists to speak in violation of their beliefs,” ADF and Smith are “asking the Supreme Court to sort this out.” 

On Feb. 22, the Supreme Court agreed to hear 303 Creative v. Elenis. Commenting on this case, Neal Hardin of Alliance Defending Freedom, said, “The government shouldn’t be allowed to weaponize a law to force artists like Lorie to create and communicate messages that violate their beliefs. Free speech is for everyone, not just those who agree with the government.”

The ERLC is grateful that the Supreme Court has agreed to hear this case. It has far-reaching free-speech and religious liberty implications in and beyond the state of Colorado, where the case originated. Pray that the Supreme Court will overturn this “unprecedented” and “staggering” ruling by the 10th Circuit, and by doing so, that it will reaffirm the constitutional rights of religious persons that are enshrined in our country’s founding documents. 

303 Creative

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