The Court Delivers Another Reassuring Decision for Religious Conservatives
Conservatives who have moral and theological objections to gay marriage saw the Supreme Court’s decision on Friday as reassurance that they would be able to assert their beliefs in a public square that they see as increasingly hostile to them.
In a 6-to-3 vote, split along ideological lines, the justices agreed with a web designer in Colorado who said she had a First Amendment right to refuse to provide services for same-sex marriages, despite a state law that forbids discrimination against gay people.
“If the government can compel an individual to speak a certain way or create certain things, that’s not freedom — it’s subjugation,” said Brent Leatherwood, the head of the Southern Baptist Convention’s policy arm, in a statement after the ruling. He described the decision as having granted freedom to all Americans to speak consistently with their beliefs, “even when those beliefs are deemed culturally unpopular.”
According to polling from 2021 by the Public Religion Research Institute, majorities of most major religious groups — including Catholics, Jews and Muslims — oppose allowing small-business owners to refuse to serve gay and lesbian people on religious grounds. Notable exceptions include white evangelical Protestants and members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
The ruling on Friday comes a day after another Supreme Court decision cheered by religious conservatives, in which the court ruled in favor of a postal carrier who refused to work on the Sabbath. The court has now delivered a string of recent judgments in favor of religious conservatives, including the overturning of a national right to abortion last year.
In the Colorado case, Ms. Smith and her lawyers have emphasized that her objection is not to working with same-sex couples or gay individuals, but to designing websites for gay weddings. Several similar cases have centered on conservative Christian small business owners who object to working on gay weddings specifically, including a baker in Colorado, two invitation designers in Arizona and a Kentucky-based photographer.
In a news conference shortly after the ruling was issued, Kristin Waggoner, general counsel for Alliance Defending Freedom, which represented Ms. Smith, compared her client to a Muslim baker asked to make a cake criticizing Islam, or to a Democratic speechwriter forced to promote a Republican candidate.
Seated next to Ms. Waggoner, Ms. Smith said she was grateful to the court, which “affirmed today that Colorado can’t force me or anyone to say something we don’t believe.” She said her consideration in accepting work as a website designer was the “message” of the site, not the identity of the client.
Ms. Smith’s portfolio includes websites for churches, real estate companies and political candidates.
While many conservative Christians hailed the decision on Friday, it drew criticism from some progressive Christians and interfaith groups, including those that serve gay people of faith.
“Broad exemptions to allow religious-based discrimination hurts people of faith, too,” Francis DeBernardo, executive director of New Ways Ministry, which advocates for gay Catholics, said in a statement. “The court’s exemption will further fuel the violence against religious minorities, particularly against non-Christian adherents, that still continues to poison our national life.”
Ruth Graham is a Dallas-based national correspondent covering religion, faith and values. She previously reported on religion for Slate. @publicroad
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