A general view of the U.S. Supreme Court building in Washington, U.S., November 26, 2021.
A general view of the U.S. Supreme Court building in Washington, U.S., November 26, 2021. Reuters / WILL DUNHAM

The U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday agreed to hear a web designer's free speech claim that she cannot be forced under a Colorado anti-discrimination law to produce websites for same-sex marriages, a practice she opposes on religious grounds.

The justices took up evangelical Christian Denver-area business owner Lorie Smith's appeal of a lower court ruling rejecting her bid for an exemption from a Colorado law barring discrimination based upon sexual orientation and certain other factors. The case follows the Supreme Court's 2018 ruling in favor of a Christian Denver-area baker who refused on religious grounds to make a wedding cake for a gay couple.

Smith's case gives the justices an opportunity to answer a question that has been raised in other disputes including the baker case but never definitively resolved: can people refuse service to customers in violation of public accommodation laws based on the idea that fulfilling a creative act such as designing a website or baking a cake is a form of free speech under the U.S. Constitution's First Amendment.

The justices are set to hear oral arguments and decide the case in the Supreme Court's next term, which begins in October and ends in June 2023.

The court declined to take up a separate question concerning whether Smith has a religious rights claim, also under the First Amendment. Smith had asked the court to overturn its important 1990 ruling that limited the ability of people to cite their religious beliefs in seeking exemptions from laws that apply to everyone.

Smith runs a web design business called 303 Creative that she wants to operate in accordance with her Christian faith. She believes that marriage should be limited to opposite-sex couples, a view shared by many conservative Christians.

Before adding wedding websites to the services she offered customers, Smith sued the state's civil rights commission and other officials in 2016 because of her concern she would be punished under the Colorado Anti-Discrimination Act. The law bars anyone from refusing "goods, services, facilities, privileges, advantages or accommodations" to anyone based among other things on sexual orientation, age, race, gender and religion. About 20 other states have similar laws.

Smith's lawyers at the conservative Christian legal group Alliance Defending Freedom have said that any state action punishing her for refusing to design websites for gay weddings violates her right to religious expression and her free speech rights.

Colorado officials have said they never investigated Smith's company and saw no evidence that anyone ever actually asked her to design a website for a same-sex wedding. Lower courts backed the state, including the Denver-based 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in a July 2021 ruling.

The Supreme Court, with its 6-3 conservative majority, has become increasingly supportive of religious rights and related free speech claims in recent years even as it has backed LGBT rights in other cases. The court legalized gay marriage nationwide in 2015 and in 2020 expanded protections for LGBT workers under federal law.

The Supreme Court has struggled to resolve cases in which conservative religious opposition to LGBT rights has clashed with situations in which LGBT people are seeking to exercise their own rights.

The justices in 2021 issued an important decision in a religious rights case involving a Catholic Church-affiliated organization that sued after the city of Philadelphia refused to place children for foster care with the agency because it barred same-sex couples from applying to be foster parents. The Supreme Court ruled unanimously in favor of Catholic Social Services but left some legal questions unresolved.

The Colorado website case is a similar dispute to the one that prompted the Supreme Court's 2018 ruling on narrow legal grounds siding with a baker named Jack Phillips. The court said in that case that the state civil rights commission that imposed sanctions on Phillips was motivated by anti-religious bias but did not make any broader pronouncements.

Similar legal fights have been waged in other states involving other small business owners including a wedding photographer and a calligrapher.