US top court deals blow to LGBTQ rights in web designer case

Supreme Court sides with business owner who refused to provide services for same-sex wedding, citing freedom of speech.

Supreme court
Advocates say the Supreme Court's ruling is latest strike against LGBTQ rights in the United States and could undermine laws meant to protect against various forms of discrimination [Susan Walsh/AP Photo]

The United States Supreme Court has ruled that certain businesses can refuse to provide services to same-sex weddings, in what advocates say is the latest blow to LGBTQ rights in country.

In a 6-3 decision on Friday, the conservative-dominated Supreme Court sided with web designer Lorie Smith, who had sought an exemption from a Colorado law that prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation and other factors.

Smith, an evangelical Christian who opposes marriage between anyone other than a man and a woman, sued Colorado’s civil rights commission and other state officials in 2016, saying she feared being punished under the state’s public accommodations law for refusing to serve gay weddings.

Smith and her lawyers argued that being required to provide her services for a same-sex wedding would inherently force her to express messages contradicting her Christian beliefs and violate her right to free speech under the First Amendment of the US Constitution.

Advocates have said her stance infringes on the rights of LGBTQ people to seek goods and services from businesses without discrimination.

Writing for the Supreme Court majority on Friday, conservative Justice Neil Gorsuch sided with Smith. “As surely as Ms Smith seeks to engage in protected First Amendment speech,” Gorsuch wrote, “Colorado seeks to compel speech Ms Smith does not wish to provide.”

“The First Amendment envisions the United States as a rich and complex place where all persons are free to think and speak as they wish, not as the government demands,” the decision also reads.

The ruling focused on a limited category of commercial activities, like artists or businesses creating content.

But in a dissenting opinion, liberal Supreme Court Justice Sonio Sotomayor said it risks being applied to any business as part of a wider “backlash” to moves towards LGBTQ equality in the country.

“Today, the Court, for the first time in its history, grants a business open to the public a constitutional right to refuse to serve members of a protected class,” she wrote.

Civil rights groups and legal scholars also had warned of a possible ripple effect if the Supreme Court ruled in favour of Smith, saying such a decision could undermine laws meant to protect against various forms of discrimination.

Laws banning discrimination in areas such as housing, hotels, retail businesses, restaurants and educational institutions – known as public accommodations laws – exist in many US states.

Colorado’s current Anti-Discrimination Act bars businesses open to the public from denying goods or services to people because of race, gender, sexual orientation, religion and other characteristics.

In the Smith case, Colorado had argued that the Act regulated sales, not speech, to ensure “equal access and equal dignity”.

President Joe Biden’s administration had supported Colorado in the case, arguing that Smith’s bid for an exemption went too far because she sought a right to refuse to create any type of wedding website for a same-sex couple, even a basic one simply stating logistical details.

In a statement after the ruling, Biden said he was “deeply concerned that the decision could invite more discrimination against LGBTQI+ Americans”.

“More broadly, today’s decision weakens long-standing laws that protect all Americans against discrimination in public accommodations – including people of color, people with disabilities, people of faith, and women,” he said.

Responding to Thursday’s ruling, the American Civil Liberties Union advocacy group said while the decision “is limited to customized expressive services, it’s wrong, and it’s a direct attack on our civil rights laws”.

Kelley Robinson, president of LGBTQ civil rights group Human Rights Campaign, also said the decision was “a deeply troubling crack in our progress and should be alarming to us all”.

“People deserve to have commercial spaces that are safe and welcoming. This decision continues to affirm how radical and out-of-touch this court is,” Robinson said.

Smith was represented by lawyers from the Alliance Defending Freedom, a conservative religious rights group that welcomed the Supreme Court’s decision.

“More than just a win for Lorie Smith, this is a sweeping #freespeech victory for EVERY American,” the organisation wrote on Twitter.

The justices issued their decision in Smith’s case one day after siding with another evangelical Christian plaintiff.

In a 9-0 ruling on Thursday, the court backed the ability of employees to obtain accommodations at work for religious practices, reviving a lawsuit by a former mail carrier who accused the Postal Service of discrimination after being disciplined for refusing to show up for work on Sundays.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies