scorecardresearch Skip to main content

Supreme Court decision in web designer case could have broader impact, specialists say

People reacted outside of the Supreme Court Friday, in Washington, after the Supreme Court's conservative majority ruled that a Christian graphic artist who wants to design wedding websites can refuse to work with same-sex couples.Mariam Zuhaib/Associated Press

In siding with a graphic designer who did not want to make customized websites celebrating same-sex marriages, the Supreme Court Friday emphasized the right to free speech.

If the designer were required to create such sites under a Colorado law intended to prevent discrimination by businesses, the court held, the state would be forcing her to “speak” in violation of her First Amendment rights.

“Were the rule otherwise, the better the artist, the finer the writer, the more unique his talent, the more easily his voice could be conscripted to disseminate the government’s preferred messages. That would not respect the First Amendment; more nearly, it would spell its demise,” Justice Neil Gorsuch wrote in the 6-3 decision.


While the high court’s decision was hailed in some quarters as a victory for free speech and religious freedom, it was also denounced as a troubling setback for gay rights with potentially broad ramifications.

“For the first time today, the Supreme Court has held that the First Amendment authorizes a business operating in the public marketplace to violate anti-discrimination laws and tell unwanted customers ‘We don’t take your kind here,’” Tobias Wolff, a University of Pennsylvania law professor who wrote a friend of the court brief in the case, said in a statement.

GLBTQ Legal Advocates & Defenders said the unusual nature of the business involved in the case suggested the ruling had “virtually no application to the overwhelming majority of businesses providing goods and services to the public.”

Mary Bonauto, the Boston group’s senior director of civil rights and legal strategies, said in a statement that the court’s ruling was “extremely limited” and “not the broad victory” that the plaintiff sought.

But she cautioned it was “crucial to ensure today’s ruling remains limited to the highly specific and customized services the Court found in this case, and is not seen as a green light to assert a free speech defense in other areas” of anti-discrimination law.


The ruling “is not the end of efforts to push LGBTQ+ people and couples into a second-class status,” she said. “GLAD and our movement will resist that effort every step of the way.”

The court, citing cases that included a ruling that schoolchildren couldn’t be forced to recite the Pledge of Allegiance, found that Colorado was seeking to “force the web designer to speak in ways that align with its views but defy her conscience about a matter of major significance.” The designer had asserted that she had a “sincerely held religious conviction” that marriage is a union between one man and one woman.

Christopher Jackson, an appellate lawyer with the Denver firm of Holland & Heart, said the ruling “says that personalized, customized wedding websites are speech that gets First Amendment protection.”

But the line between those activities that are protected and other commercial services is not well defined, he said.

“The difficult question is, what does this mean in other cases? Less personalized sites, floral arrangements, renting a venue, making a cake,” he said. “I think the majority opinion today does not spend much time fleshing that out.”

The opinion does not offer “a lot of guidance going forward on what is speech and what is commercial conduct,” he added.

Wolff said the court took a set of precedents “involving the right private speakers have to control their own messages” and applied them to businesses.


“It remains to be seen how far this radical new doctrine will reach — what businesses produce goods and services that are ‘expressive enough’ to take advantage of this holding,” he said.

Alejandra Caraballo, a clinical instructor at Harvard Law School’s Cyberlaw Clinic, said the ruling would affect more than a narrow group of creative or artistic businesses.

The group behind the lawsuit, Alliance Defending Freedom, will “come back with cases that push even further,” Caraballo predicted.

“This will absolutely be used to allow for discrimination on the basis of race, gender, religion, and basically any other protected class, as Justice [Sonia] Sotomayor notes in her dissent,” she said.

”Justice Sotomayor noted in her dissent that never before in history has the Supreme Court said that discrimination against a protected class is essentially legal, based off of someone’s subjective claims around religious liberty or religious freedom,” Caraballo said. “It’s such an extremist and out-of-the-norm opinion that is absolutely opening the floodgates to all kinds of discrimination to be legalized, as long as there is a pretense of religious freedom.”

In addition to her concerns about the ruling’s impact, Caraballo expressed doubt about the origin of the lawsuit, citing a report in The New Republic that suggested a gay couple cited by the designer in court filings may not have existed.

Caraballo said the web designer appeared to be an “entirely made-up victim” in a case “used to be able to persecute minorities.”


Tanya Neslusan, executive director of MassEquality, an LGBTQ+ advocacy group, was also concerned that the ruling opened the door to broader discrimination.

“We fear that while today’s decision is focused on the rights of gays and lesbians, it sets a dangerous precedent for discrimination by business owners against any protected class that the owner would prefer not to serve,” Neslusan said in a statement.

In a statement, the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression hailed the decision as “a resounding victory for freedom of expression and freedom of conscience.”

“To cast the decision as a ‘loss’ for LGBTQ rights is a mistake that both misreads the facts and ignores the vital importance of freedom of conscience for all Americans. As the Court makes clear, nothing in today’s decision allows businesses like restaurants or movie theaters to refuse service to customers on the basis of protected class status,” the group said.

Martin Finucane can be reached at Travis Andersen can be reached at