One of the purposes of the Supreme Court in the US Constitution is to provide clarity to contentious situations. Over the last several years, the high court has dealt with several issues related to religious rights. It seems the issue of faith has become a more legal issue than in the past, especially when it comes to the intersection of discrimination.
On Monday, justices heard a case involving religious freedom and free speech discrimination. Lorie Smith owns a custom website design firm in Colorado. She is an evangelical Christian who says it violates her conscience and faith to design wedding websites for gay couples. She proactively challenged a Colorado law prohibiting businesses from discriminating against LGBTQ customers.
So, the question is, does the First Amendment protect the rights of religious and LGBTQ persons when there is a contradiction?
The challenge is that everyone has a right to be respected. Yet, when is a line crossed? For either side, does the issue become discriminatory or bullying at a certain point?
Here is the answer, in my view.
The Bill of Rights has three provisions pertinent to this case:
- Freedom of Religion
- Freedom of Speech
- Freedom of Expression
In this case, a hypothetical couple enjoys two of the three, and the business owner has a claim to all of them. One would think that the state and its attorneys would understand this as a matter of fundamental Constitutional law. Regardless, the high court has agreed to answer the question: who is being discriminated against according to the Constitution:
- The same-sex couple who wants a website announcement of their marriage
- The business owner who is religious and has strong beliefs and convictions
Smith says that in building the website, the story represents her own speech as the creator. Therefore she can’t conscionably endorse it due to her faith. The defense argues the rejection constitutes status-based discrimination and violates a state anti-discrimination law.
On Monday, Smith’s attorney didn’t touch on the religion issue. Instead, she argued for free speech after the Supreme Court rejected the religious-rights element of the case. She contended before the Supreme Court that a Colorado anti-discrimination law violated her client’s free speech rights by compelling her to participate in speech she opposed.
Here is a philosophical challenge. The Left appears to want it both ways. Regarding social media censorship, they argue private businesses can discriminate against and censor speech they disagree with. Interestingly, when a person of faith who owns a business exercises their rights to choose who they will do business with, they allege it’s illegal discrimination.
Consider this exchange on Monday between the State Solicitor General Eric Olson and Justice Amy Coney-Barrett:
Barrett: Can a (web) designer decline to serve a Catholic club because they disagree with their views on marriage?
Olson: Yes, it’s not status-based discrimination
Barrett: But the designer can’t decline to do a same-sex marriage (web) design?
Olson: Yes, because same-sex marriage is inextricably intertwined with status (& religion isn’t).
Barrett exposed an apparent flaw. There are few things more intertwined in a person’s value system than their faith or the absence of one. Still, regardless of faith values, everyone discriminates based on their personal value systems. It might inform where you choose to shop and who you choose to associate with. It could inform who you work for and with which family members you want to be around.
During the hearing, Chief Justice John Roberts noted that the Supreme Court had never approved legal efforts to compel speech contrary to one’s beliefs or conscience.
Perhaps Smith, or other religious individuals, are not practicing ill-willed discrimination. Maybe they are experiencing bullying.
The very definition of bullying is trying to coerce or intimidate someone into doing something they don’t want to do or find objectionable. Is that what Colorado is doing? Smith has a guaranteed right to choose who she wants to do business with on religious grounds. Perhaps she’s not making a good business decision, or maybe she is — either way, it’s her choice and that of those who choose to do business with her or not because of her beliefs. Colorado also had a choice. They could have respected both sides and worked as a fair mediator to balance Smith’s rights. The hypothetical couple could also find another person to make the website. In America today, many people would gladfully serve them.
Instead of working it out amongst themselves, the US Supreme Court will settle the matter, albeit likely not to the liking of either party. The majority is likely to decide for the web designer, but write their opinion so broadly it doesn’t solve the larger question about rights versus discrimination.
We’ll find out this spring.
The Conservative Era