I’m unabashedly gay, and I certainly support gay marriage. But I nonetheless side with the Christian wedding designer who’s before the Supreme Court right now because she refuses to design a same-sex wedding website.
I’m going to explain why, but first, here are the facts.
What’s This Case All About?
On Monday, the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in a case called 303 Creative LLC v Elenis. The case centers around Lorie Smith, a Christian who owns a website design business. She wants to expand her business and start designing custom wedding websites, but due to her religious beliefs, is unwilling to create them for same-sex weddings, as she would be forced to do under current Colorado civil rights law. Smith is challenging the Colorado statute on First Amendment grounds, arguing that she has a free speech right (note: the case is not about religious liberty) not to be forced to create messages she disagrees with.
No, she’s not suing because she wants to put a “no-gays allowed” sign in her window. In fact, she has served many LGBTQ clients and offers her general services to all. Smith is simply unwilling to create a custom wedding website, which inherently endorses said wedding, for a ceremony she does not agree with. She says she would seek to make the same refusal to other custom websites that violate her beliefs, including those which denigrate gay people or feature a heterosexual couple in violation of other tenets of her Christian faith.
The state of Colorado, on the other hand, argues that her religion does not grant her an exemption to a neutral civil rights law. The government argues that if Smith is going to offer wedding websites, she must offer them to all.
An Important Distinction
A key question, in this case, is whether Smith’s really seeking to categorically deny service or refuse a specific message.
For example, both parties agree that beliefs, religious or not, do not allow a restaurant to refuse its general services to people on the basis of protected characteristics, such as sexual orientation. A pizza chain can’t put up a “straights only” sign under current Civil Rights law, and no one is arguing that the First Amendment entitles them to do so. However, on the other hand, almost everyone agrees that, both legally and prudentially, a newspaper can’t be forced to publish an article it disagrees with and that a church can’t be forced to perform a marriage against its faith. But what about everything in between these two extremes?
It’s that muddy gray area that’s at play in this case and others like it. Is Smith seeking to deny service on the basis of who a customer is? Or is she simply seeking to exercise her free speech rights on specific services that, regardless of who requests them, violate her beliefs?
Who Should Win?
The media has portrayed the Colorado government’s side as the “gay rights” position, while casting Smith’s side as the “religious liberty” side. Yet I am gay, and I am not religious, and I still think Smith should win this case.
It’s not because I sympathize with her position. I think it’s wrong and outdated, in fact. But it’s because I want to live in a society where all people have the right to freedom of conscience. In particular, I want that right for LGBT people, too.
Imagine this alternative scenario: A gay man owns a website design business and a Christian group wants to hire him to create a website featuring anti-gay bible verses and preaching against homosexuality. If he refuses, under current Colorado law — which also has religion as a protected class — he would be just as guilty as Smith would be. But if the Supreme Court carves out an exception for free speech, both can live by their consciences.
And no, a ruling for Smith doesn’t negate all anti-discrimination laws. Even Smith’s side in this case acknowledges that all services which don’t involve speech—think catering or rental housing, for example—should still be bound by normal anti-discrimination laws. They simply want a narrow carve out for conscience rights in speech-based services.
I want that for myself and all LGBT people. So, I have to support it for those on the other side of these issues. That’s what living in a pluralist and free society requires.