WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court’s conservative majority on Monday sounded ready to rule that a Christian website designer has a free-speech right to refuse to work with same-sex couples planning to marry.
The justices heard arguments in a Colorado case that posed a conflict between the First Amendment rights of a business owner and a state anti-discrimination law that gives customers a right to equal service without regard to their race, religion, gender or sexual orientation.
The outcome could cut out a hole in the laws of 22 mostly blue states that directly forbid discrimination against LGBTQ customers.
Several justices, however, expressed interest in finding a narrow ruling that could bolster the First Amendment rights of some business owners, without creating a broad new free-speech loophole that would open the door to increased discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, race, gender, disability or other legally protected characteristics.
During more than two hours of argument, the justices sounded split along the usual ideological lines.
The case was brought by Lorie Smith, a website designer seeking to expand her business to include weddings. But she filed suit against the state of Colorado seeking assurances that she need not work with a same-sex couple seeking such a wedding website.
In their legal brief, Smith’s lawyers argued she does not seek a right to discriminate against gay people in every instance, but only wants the right to avoid being required to — in her view — express support for same-sex marriages that contradict her religion.
She “is willing to create custom websites for anyone, including those who identify as LGBT,” they wrote, “provided their message does not conflict with her religious views. But she cannot create websites that promote messages contrary to her faith, such as messages that condone violence or promote sexual immorality, abortion or same-sex marriage.”
The three liberal justices largely dismissed her claim, defending the principle of civil rights and equal treatment for all. They said the court should be wary of granting a new constitutional right to discriminate.
“What’s the limiting line” for the proposed free-speech right to deny service?, asked Justice Sonia Sotomayor. “How about people who don’t believe in interracial marriage or about people who don’t believe that disabled people should get married?”