Colorado crushes a Christian’s conscience
Kristen Waggoner | Can the government compel speech?
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Lorie Smith, the owner of Colorado-based 303 Creative, is a joy-filled designer who creates custom graphics and websites. Smith left the corporate world to work on projects she cared about and, in part, to advocate for her religious beliefs through her website design.
About five years ago, she sought to expand her business to meet a booming market she personally loves: creating custom wedding websites that celebrate the Biblical design of marriage between a man and a woman. Smith wrote a statement to post on her website, announcing her expansion and explaining how her faith informs her view on marriage, including the content she can and cannot create.
But in Colorado, this is now illegal.
According to the state, if Smith creates custom wedding websites, she must create websites that celebrate same-sex weddings and do so in direct violation of her faith. Colorado law also prohibits Smith from sharing her beliefs on her own website. Colorado punishes her based on her viewpoint, which is based on Scripture and widely held by millions of Americans.
When the government can compel an individual to speak state-approved messages or force an artist to stay silent about her own beliefs, every American’s freedom to speak, create, and live consistent with his or her faith is in jeopardy. And history confirms that governments willing to take away religious freedom and free speech will eventually limit a whole host of other God-given rights.
After the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled 2-1 against Smith last summer, Alliance Defending Freedom asked the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn that decision. The 10th Circuit’s ruling acknowledged that Smith’s First Amendment rights were indeed at stake. It further acknowledged that Smith doesn’t discriminate against anyone and makes decisions based solely on the content of the requested website. She seeks only to speak in a manner consistent with her faith, not impose her views on others.
And the court admitted that Colorado imposes a double standard: While the law targets certain artists and requires them to create messages celebrating same-sex weddings, artists with the opposite view have the freedom to decline to speak messages contrary to their consciences.
But the court said that because someone can only get one of Smith’s websites from Smith and no one else, Colorado could override her First Amendment rights and compel her speech (never mind that there are more than 77,000 website-design firms in the United States). That turns the First Amendment on its head. Think about it: The more unique or persuasive your speech is, the less freedom you have over it.
The chief judge of the 10th Circuit in his dissent rightly called this result “unprecedented,” “novel,” and “staggering” in its scope. Indeed, this is what it looks like when those in power crush ideological and religious views they don’t like, forcing total compliance of state-approved speech.
If this all sounds familiar, it’s because you likely recall the story of Masterpiece Cakeshop owner Jack Phillips, a cake artist in Colorado. Government officials used this same Colorado law to punish him. Phillips’ case went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court before receiving a ruling in favor of religious liberty. But the court didn’t address Phillips’ speech claim. And since that ruling, activists continue to harass him with lawsuit after lawsuit, the latest after he respectfully declined to create a custom cake celebrating a gender transition.
And then there’s floral artist Barronelle Stutzman, punished by Washington state for declining to create custom floral arrangements under a similar law. And New York photographer Emilee Carpenter faces the revocation of her business license, fines up to $100,000, and even a year in prison—all because she does not want to promote same-sex weddings through her photography or in her blog posts on her own website.
A government that crushes an individual’s right to create freely can do the same to any one of us. A Muslim designer could be forced to create a website criticizing the Quran. A Jewish writer could be compelled to craft anti-Semitic messages. A Democrat speechwriter could be forced to write speeches for Republican candidates.
Right now, whether you can abide by the dictates of your conscience depends—at least in legal terms—which state is your home. That is just wrong. We hope the Supreme Court will reverse the 10th Circuit’s ruling, but freedom isn’t affected only by what happens in the courtroom. We all have a role to play. We must work to protect the right to speak freely, but we must also actually speak the truth in the communities where God has placed us—before legislative bodies, school boards, classrooms, workplaces, and especially in our own homes.
It’s time to speak out and to speak the truth.
Editor’s note: Kristen Waggoner is general counsel at Alliance Defending Freedom and argued Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission before the U.S. Supreme Court and 303 Creative v. Elenis before the 10th Circuit.
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