Imagine you’re an artist who creates custom websites. A new client asks you to create one that will promote a pro-life rally and celebrate the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent Dobbs decision to overturn Roe v. Wade.
Unbeknownst to the client, you disagree with the June 24 Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization decision and in fact are an abortion activist in your free time away from your business.
Would you create the pro-life message as requested?
One artist might conclude that, while they disagree with the message, they’re still comfortable promoting it through their custom artwork. Another might decide that the issue is so important to him or her that his or her values dictate politely declining and referring the client elsewhere.
Regardless of how one would answer the question, even in this most hyperpartisan and overpoliticized era of American history, all of us should be able to agree that the choice belongs to the artist.
Government should have no say in the matter. In fact, the only role for government in this case is to protect the right of citizens to speak or not speak and to live according to their convictions—a right citizens have whether they choose to enter the marketplace or not.
Lorie Smith doesn’t have to imagine a scenario like that. Smith is a Christian and an artist who runs her own design studio, 303 Creative, and loves to serve everyone, regardless of who they are, promoting messages she’s passionate about. For messages that conflict with her deeply held beliefs, she’s made a choice not to create custom websites that promote those causes.
Her decision to create and promote custom wedding websites consistent with her beliefs has landed her at the U.S. Supreme Court, where she’s asking the justices to protect her right to create freely in the face of a Colorado law that threatens that freedom.
The court will hear oral argument in the case of 303 Creative v. Elenis on Monday. (Aubrey Elenis, the director of the Colorado Civil Rights Division, is one of the officials named as a defendant in the lawsuit.)
The state of Colorado and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit, despite ruling against her, agreed that Smith serves and works with people from all walks of life, including those who identify as LGBT. Her decisions on whether to create custom art are never based on the client, but on the message someone asks her to create.
Like most graphic artists, Smith decides whether she can custom-design a website based on her beliefs, the message being requested, and her own expertise.
Every design she creates is custom and must be consistent with her faith. Like other artists, Smith doesn’t promote every message requested. For example, she can’t create art that promotes certain political messages or casinos. She also can’t design anything that is un-American, degrades people who identify as LGBT, or disrespects someone’s faith.
But Colorado officials audaciously claim the authority to force Smith and any other artist or creative entrepreneur to forfeit their right to free speech as a cost of doing business.
As specious as that claim is, its tenuous link to credulity is further weakened by the fact that the state only imposes this Faustian bargain on those who disagree with the state’s current preferred message on marriage. Its position is clear: Speak the state’s message or don’t speak at all.
Suppression of viewpoints that conflict with the government’s is what characterizes every tyrannical regime.
Coerced speech and censorship are two sides of the same unconstitutional coin. Even in the darkest times of American history, when Jim Crow laws were enforced and state governments attempted to crush the civil rights movement, freedom of speech exercised peacefully in marches and protests eventually pierced hearts and prompted the American conscience to finally live up to its promise “that all men are created equal and endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights.”
Challenging unjust laws is indeed a hallmark of civil rights litigation.
When the Supreme Court handed down its Obergefell v. Hodges decision, which effectively legalized same-sex marriage, it promised that those who disagreed would not lose the right to speak consistent with their beliefs that marriage is between a husband and wife.
The Supreme Court should remember that promise here and ensure that governments won’t force you to say something you don’t believe, regardless of your beliefs on marriage—or any other topic.
After all, this case transcends the marriage issue. It’s about whether the government can purge people (and their ideas) from the marketplace simply because the government doesn’t like their beliefs. We are right to expect and demand that government treat people equally under the law by protecting everyone’s right to free speech.
At the heart of this case, then, lies the question: “What kind of country do we strive to be?”
Whether Americans agree with Smith’s beliefs or not, a win for her is a win for all of us. Every American has the right to speak freely, regardless of whether the government likes his or her beliefs.
If we are not willing to stand up for that right for those with whom we disagree, we are unworthy of it ourselves.
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