The Supreme Court on Friday offered significant new protections to business owners who don’t want to express support for same-sex marriage, ruling that the First Amendment protects them from sharing messages that go against their own beliefs.

The 6-3 decision in favor of a Colorado web designer expands the possibility of receiving exemptions from public accommodations laws, which aim to end discrimination against various groups, including the LGBTQ community. Justices in the majority said that, while important, civil rights laws cannot be used to trample free speech rights.

“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,” wrote Justice Neil Gorsuch in the majority opinion.

The fight over two freedoms
The Supreme Court is hearing a case on LGBTQ rights and religion (again). Here’s what you need to know

The court’s three liberal justices dissented, arguing that the ruling in favor of the web designer threatens civil rights protections nationwide.

“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. ... That is wrong. Profoundly wrong,” wrote Justice Sonia Sotomayor in the dissent.

A statement from GLAAD said “the decision does not reflect a country that supports LGBTQ people and recognizes that our relationships are equal, valid and valued.”

“This decision will bring harm and stigma to LGBTQ families and is yet another example of a Court that is out of touch with the supermajority of Americans who believe in fundamental freedoms and know that discrimination is wrong,” the statement said.

The case stemmed from designer Lorie Smith’s desire to begin offering web design services to engaged couples. She filed the lawsuit after being advised that if she refused to work with LGBTQ couples for religious reasons, she’d likely be found in violation of Colorado’s public accommodations law, which prohibits various forms of discrimination.

Smith, who is represented by the Alliance Defending Freedom, argued that the law violates her free speech rights by forcing her to express support for gay marriage through the creation of LGBTQ wedding websites. She said creative professionals should control what messages they communicate through their work.

In a press conference after the decision was released, Smith called the ruling a “victory not just for me, but for all of us.”

She said she was happy to design websites for anyone, including members of the LGBTQ community, but said she wanted to be able to choose projects based on what would be said on the website.

“When considering a potential project, I always look at the message being requested, never the person requesting it,” she said. “My canvas is on paper, sometimes pixels, and I cherish the freedom to craft messages and celebrate things that I’m passionate about.”

Her attorney, Kristen Waggoner, the president, CEO and general counsel for Alliance Defending Freedom, said, “Today after enduring seven years of government censorship, the United States Supreme Court ruled in Lorie’s favor and upheld free speech. The court held that the First Amendment prevents Colorado from forcing Lorie to say a government message that she doesn’t believe and that the government cannot misuse the law to eliminate ideas and dislikes from the public square.”

Utah Sen. Mike Lee, a Republican, released a statement, applauding the decision.

“Today the Supreme Court has safeguarded Americans’ right to exercise our faith in the public square by prohibiting Colorado from forcing citizens to either speak as the state demands, even if it violates their religious beliefs, or face sanctions,” he said.

“I was proud to have signed an amicus brief supporting Lorie Smith of 303 Creative and her constitutional right — and that of her fellow Americans — to decline to speak or act in violation of her religious beliefs.”

In his opinion, Gorsuch wrote: “The First Amendment prohibits Colorado from forcing a website designer to create expressive designs speaking messages with which the designer disagrees.”

Colorado officials had argued that exempting business owners with faith-based objections to same-sex marriage from public accommodations law would undermine the point of nondiscrimination protections. The goal of the law is to protect vulnerable communities, including the LGBTQ community, not to limit the free speech or religious freedom rights of people like Smith, they said.

Colorado’s arguments prevailed in the lower courts, which ruled the state could limit the rights of business owners in the service of preventing discrimination. But in February 2022, the Supreme Court agreed to weigh in on the case.

In the majority decision overturning the lower courts, Gorsuch wrote that “Colorado seeks to compel this speech in order to ‘excis(e) certain ideas or viewpoints from the public dialogue,’” and that the lower court “recognized that the coercive ‘(e)liminati(on)’ of dissenting ideas about marriage constitutes Colorado’s ‘very purpose’ in seeking to apply its law to Ms. Smith. ... But while the Tenth Circuit thought that Colorado could compel speech from Ms. Smith consistent with the Constitution, this Court’s First Amendment precedents teach otherwise.

“Under Colorado’s logic, the government may compel anyone who speaks for pay on a given topic to accept all commissions on that same topic — no matter the message — if the topic somehow implicates a customer’s statutorily protected trait. ... Taken seriously, that principle would allow the government to force all manner of artists, speechwriters, and others whose services involve speech to speak what they do not believe on pain of penalty. The Court’s precedents recognize the First Amendment tolerates none of that.”

Gorsuch said that the court also has a compelling interest to protect Americans’ civil rights, but said while the government can compel businesses to serve all people through public accommodation laws, it cannot compel “expressive” work product, because that is a form of compelled speech, which is contrary to the First Amendment.

“The First Amendment’s protections belong to all, not just to speakers whose motives the government finds worthy. In this case, Colorado seeks to force an individual to speak in ways that align with its views but defy her conscience about a matter of major significance,” he wrote.

During oral arguments in December, the justices considered Smith’s plight and whether it’s possible to rule for her without weakening civil rights protections nationwide. Much of the discussion focused on how to balance the rights of business owners and customers and how to figure out what types of creative services represent a form of protected speech.

Court watchers predicted the conservative justices, at least, would rule for Smith, while trying to place limits on what types of business owners could seek exemptions from public accommodation laws in order to reduce the potential for future conflict, as the Deseret News previously reported.