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U.S. Supreme Court leans toward web designer with anti-gay marriage stance

U.S. Supreme Court's conservative majority signaled sympathy on Monday toward an evangelical Christian web designer whose business refuses to provide services for same-sex marriages. The web designer argued that freedom of speech exempts artists from anti-discrimination laws. The web designer argued a Colorado law violates the right of artists - including web designers - to free speech under the U.S. Constitution's First Amendment by forcing them to express messages through their work that they oppose.

Lower courts ruled in favor of Colorado.

The web designer said she believes marriage should be limited to opposite-sex couples. She sued Colorado's civil rights commission and other state officials in 2016 because she feared she would be punished for refusing to serve gay weddings.

Conservative Justice Samuel Alito asked, "Can they be forced to write vows or speeches that espouse things they loath?"

Justice Sonia Sotomayor said a ruling favoring the web designer could allow a business like hers to also decline to provide services if they objected to interracial marriages or disabled people getting married. "Where's the line?" Sotomayor asked. Sotomayor said such a ruling would be the first time in the Supreme Court's history allowing a business open to the general public to "refuse to serve a customer based on race, sex, religion or sexual orientation."

President Joe Biden's administration backed Colorado in the case. Deputy Solicitor General Brian Fletcher told the justices that even if they are sympathetic to the web designer's own situation, she was seeking a "very sweeping" result that could allow businesses to reject customers on the unacceptable basis of race as well.

Colorado's law bars businesses open to the public from denying goods or services to people because of race, gender, sexual orientation, religion and certain other characteristics, and from displaying a notice to that effect. Public accommodations laws exist in many states, banning discrimination in areas such as housing, hotels, retail businesses, restaurants and educational institutions.

The case follows the Supreme Court's narrow 2018 ruling in favor of Jack Phillips, a Christian Denver-area baker who refused on religious grounds to make a wedding cake for a gay couple. The court in that case stopped short of creating a free speech exemption to anti-discrimination laws. Like Phillips, Smith is represented by the Alliance Defending Freedom, a conservative religious rights group.

A ruling is expected by the end of June.

Reuters – December 5, 2022 - By Andrew Chung and Nate Raymond

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