I’ll begin with a warning: This will be a bit longer than my usual post, because I’m livid.
I began to write about 303 Creative v. Elenis, the case brought by a website designer who wants an exemption from Colorado’s civil rights/public accommodation law. She claims her “sincere religious beliefs” prevent her from “endorsing” same-sex marriages, and wants the Supreme Court to exempt her from the law’s non-discrimination requirement. She is asserting that the First Amendment–which among other things prohibits government from compelling speech–protects “artists” and those engaged in “expressive” work from endorsing behaviors they consider sinful, and further asserts that the act of providing a wedding website would constitute such endorsement.
Initially, I just intended to argue that framing this conflict as a Free Speech issue is dishonest.
The right question is whether someone who chooses to open a business to the public should have the right to turn away gay customers simply because the service she would provide them is “expressive” or “artistic.” Should an architecture firm that believes Black families don’t deserve fancy homes be permitted to turn away Black clients because its work is “expressive”? Can a florist shop whose owner objects to Christianity refuse to serve Christians?
Cole points out that artists don’t have to open businesses in the first place.
Most writers, painters and other artists never do; they pick their subjects and leave it at that. The photographer Annie Leibovitz, for example, does not offer to take photographs of anyone who offers to pay her fee but chooses her subjects. She is perfectly free to photograph only white people or only Buddhists.
Cole also reminds us that businesses open to the public are free to define the content of what they sell. “A Christmas store can sell only Christmas items without running afoul of public accommodations laws. It need not stock Hanukkah candles or Kwanzaa cards. But it cannot put a sign on its doors saying, “We don’t serve Jews” or “No Blacks allowed.””
The lawsuit frames a website designer as an “artist” who should be exempt from public accommodation laws because her product includes an “expressive” element. As Cole points out, multiple businesses are expressive: interior decorators, landscape architects, tattoo parlors, sign painters and beauty salons, among others.
I intended to argue that, on the ground of dishonest framing alone, the plaintiff should lose. But then I did some further research, and what I found appalled me.
I already understood that this case had been intentionally constructed–manufactured– to appeal to our newly theocratic Supreme Court majority. The plaintiff has the same lawyer who brought the bakery case a few years ago raising the same arguments. The Court essentially “punted” on that one, returning it to Colorado without reaching the merits, and this case has clearly been manufactured to try again.
But that isn’t the half of it. Robert Hubbell provides the ugly underside.
It turns out that this case does not involve an actual “case or controversy”—as required by the Constitution.( In the United States, courts are not allowed to issue advisory opinions, only to decide actual, existing conflicts.)
In general, the jurisdiction of federal courts is limited to real disputes in which the plaintiff can show actual injury. (That is a gross oversimplification of a complicated judicial doctrine, but stick with me for a moment!)
The 303 Creative “controversy” was manufactured by a religious advocacy organization (ADF). The plaintiff is a web design company that might—in the future—offer such services for weddings. But the plaintiff does not yet offer that service, may never do so, and (therefore) has not yet been asked to provide those services to a same-sex couple. Nonetheless, the plaintiff asks the Court for an advisory ruling about its obligations under a Colorado statute prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.
No same-sex couple has ever asked Smith to make them a wedding website; in fact, she has never made a wedding website for anyone. Her work to date focuses on local politicians, dog breeders, contractors, and houses of worship—not celebrations of life events.
Smith one day might be asked to make a same-sex couple’s website, ADF asserted. And when that day comes, she wants the right to say no.
The first question any lawyer–or any law student– would ask is: in the obvious absence of an actual case or controversy, why did the Court agree to hear this case? I’m afraid the answer to that is chilling: because this is a Court with a rogue, theocratic majority intent upon imposing religious beliefs held by a minority of Americans on the rest of us–intent upon making the U.S. a “Christian nation.”
There’s more. It turns out that the Colorado statute already has language that would allow Smith to refuse to make a custom website for same-sex couples. Only if the business offers “off the shelf” website designs for sale to the general public would she be required to sell them to anyone who wants one. This so-called “artist” wants the Court to say that she can refuse to sell a standardized product to same-sex couples.
Let’s get real. If a business owner really, sincerely doesn’t want to work with particular customers, it is supremely easy to evade nondiscrimination laws. The proprietor can always say something like, “Gee, Mrs. Smith, I am so backed up with orders that I can’t meet your timeline,” or “I’m so sorry, Mr. Jones, but I’m short-handed right now”…there are lots of ways these pious bigots can refrain from “participating in sin” without trumpeting their disdain or trying to change the law to encourage others to discriminate.
I will also note that the use of such all-purpose excuses would allow Smith to deny service to other “sinners”–surely her “sincere” religious beliefs would prohibit sales to adulterers or women who’ve had abortions, or atheists…interesting how these “godly” folks are laser-focused on just one sin…
It’s depressing enough to realize how many “Christian soldiers” are fixated on making life miserable for us “others.” It is absolutely terrifying to realize that the Supreme Court of the United States is controlled by theocrats intent upon eviscerating the wall of separation erected by the First Amendment’s religion clauses in order to enforce their version of “morality” on all Americans.
Iran has morality police. How’s that working out for them?