On Dec. 5, 2022, the U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments in 303 Creative v. Elenis, an important case for free speech and religious liberty. Since 2016, Lorie Smith, founder of the web design firm 303 Creative, has been in the process of challenging a Colorado law that violates her First Amendment rights. It is the same law that was used to target Jack Phillips and which led to the 2018 Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission case. In that case, the court ruled favorably for Jack Phillips on narrow grounds but failed to address the underlying conflict between anti-discrimination laws and free speech rights.
A decision in this landmark case involving 303 Creative is expected in May or June of 2023.
What is this case about?
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. She has created all kinds of custom websites for all types of people, but she refuses to use her “design skills and creativity to express messages that violate her deeply held religious convictions.”
The state of Colorado views Smith’s work as a public accommodation, and thus, it is subject to Colorado’s Anti-Discrimination Act, which prohibits discrimination, including refusal of service, against any protected class, including sexual orientation or gender identity. This puts Smith’s desire to run her business according to her beliefs in direct conflict with Colorado’s law.
Though the results of this case certainly impact religious liberty, the primary issue of this case is one of free speech. The central question before the court is “whether applying a public-accommodation law to compel an artist to speak or stay silent violates the free speech clause of the First Amendment.”
What arguments were made?
Kristen Waggoner, CEO, president, and general counsel of Alliance Defending Freedom, argued on Smith and 303 Creative’s behalf. Her central argument was that the enforcement of Colorado’s Anti-Distcrimination Act against Smith violates her first amendment free speech rights by forcing her to create speech inconsistent with her religious beliefs. The argument went to great lengths to demonstrate that Smith’s decisions in what projects she will take on are not based on who is requesting her services but rather what message the work will convey.
As Supreme Court analyst Amy Howe explains, “This means . . . that she would ‘happily’ design graphics for an LGBTQ customer who runs an animal shelter. But she will not take on commissions that would be inconsistent with her Christian beliefs—including, she says, by promoting same-sex marriage—because a custom wedding website would ‘express approval of the couple’s marriage.’”
Furthering this idea that the message rather than the individual is central to the decision, in the argument, Waggoner concluded that Smith would not create a website for a hypothetical heterosexual couple who wanted to share their love story and include details of their relationship beginning with an affair and progressing after divorces because she believes that divorce and extramarital sex are wrong.
Both the Colorado solicitor general and the U.S. deputy attorney general argued that the Colorado law “merely regulates sales, rather than the products or services being sold, and therefore does not require or bar any speech.” The state argued that Smith is not being forced to create anything, but that whatever she decides to create must be available to be purchased by anyone. The arguments also focused on how a potential ruling could impact similarly suited circumstances where the individual does not want to serve those entering into an interracial marriage or a marriage between people with disabilities.
Why does this case matter?
This case has significant implications for the free speech of all people. If the court were to rule against Smith, it would establish a precedent that cuts to the core of our nation’s fabric. The First Amendment protects free speech—even when that speech is unpopular.
Beyond that, for us, as Christians, our beliefs on matters of marriage and gender are core to our convictions, pointing to God’s design and the living picture of Christ and his Church. Throughout the argument, it was apparent that the justices were operating from vastly different worldviews and perspectives, with several justices seemingly unaware of the centrality of this belief to the Christian faith.
As ERLC President Brent Leatherwood said today:
Christians have, for 2,000 years, said that marriage is a picture of the gospel. It was clear from today’s oral arguments that several justices have never encountered this notion on a prior occasion. This is unfortunate as it is central to understanding why a Christian creative professional would object to being compelled by the state to say something contrary to this deeply held belief. That is why Justice Gorsuch was exactly right when he seemed to suggest this case is not about who is being served, ‘but about what’ the state of Colorado is forcing upon the speech creator. Today’s proceedings reveal why the Court should rule in favor of 303 Creative because to do otherwise would be tantamount to giving the government keys to a paver to roll right over private business-owning Christians who disagree with whatever the prevailing cultural notions about marriage and family happen to be fashionable at a given moment.
It is essential that people of faith not only have the ability to believe these fundamental truths but also to live them out in the public square. No one should be forced to sacrifice their most deeply held beliefs to participate in the marketplace and contribute to our society. The ERLC is urging the court to rule in favor of 303 Creative and will be preparing Christians and churches to respond to this important decision next year.