Wider than websites? LGBTQ+ advocates fear broader discrimination after Supreme Court ruling
Jun 30, 2023, 3:21 PM
A new U.S. Supreme Court ruling allowing a Colorado Christian graphic artist to refuse to work with same-sex couples has LGBTQIA+ people across the country worried about just how far the consequences will reach.
The high court’s conservative majority sided with Lorie Smith, a designer of wedding websites for heterosexual couples who argued that a ruling against her would force writers, painters, musicians and other artists to do work that is against their beliefs. Opponents warned that a win for Smith would allow a range of businesses to discriminate, refusing to serve Black, Jewish or Muslim customers, interracial or interfaith couples or immigrants.
“We’re treading into some weird territory as people. We’re starting to become the ‘Morality Police,’ and that’s not freedom as far as I am concerned,” Dallas Lyn Miller-Downes, a queer visual artist and activist based in Portland, Oregon, said Friday, hours after the court’s 6-3 ruling. “What I am scared of is that this goes beyond the art. Where do we stop with this?”
One of the court’s liberal justices wrote in a dissent that the decision’s effect is to “mark gays and lesbians for second-class status” and that it opens the door to other discrimination.
In Topeka, Kansas, where several dozen people gathered Friday for a transgender rights rally, Kirby Evers, a 31-year-old bisexual Lawrence resident, said the ruling will make people more comfortable being openly rude or using slurs, particularly to trans people.
He called the Supreme Court “compromised by fascists,” adding, “They’re going to do as much destruction to our Constitution as possible.”
Raiden Gonzalez, a 22-year-old gay Salina, Kansas, resident participating in the rally, said he’s regularly gotten looks over how he walks and talks — and brusque treatment in stores and school, even occasionally from teachers.
“People in the LGBTQ community should be scared of this,” he said.
Miller-Downes said the ruling feels like just another way art is being used as a weapon against the queer community — with drag artists banned in some parts of the country and LGBTQ+ customers at risk of being banned from artistic businesses in others.
“Art should inspire people, heal people and start conversations. We should be known for how we love, not who we exclude — that’s a morality I can stand behind as a Christian and an artist,” Miller-Downes said. “We need to, as a society, celebrate businesses owned by marginalized people so other marginalized people, queer people, know where to get help.”
Legal analysts on both sides of the issue have said the decision is narrow and won’t apply to most businesses. Jennifer C. Pizer, the chief legal officer for Lambda Legal, said in a statement that the ruling applies specifically to businesses that create original artwork and pure speech, and then offer that work as limited commissions.
Still, she said, the ruling continued the court majority’s “dangerous siren call to those trying to return the country to the social and legal norms of the Nineteenth Century.”
Sarah Warbelow, legal director at Human Rights Campaign, said Friday’s ruling does not dismantle the public accommodations laws that protect people based on sexual orientation and gender identity in 22 states.
Those states can still enforce their nondiscrimination laws for employment, housing and buying goods that are not highly customizable with speech, she said. For instance, someone preparing for a same-sex marriage could still buy a wedding gown customized with colors.
But Warbelow said the ruling also opens the door to businesses being allowed to discriminate against people for reasons other than sexual orientation, like religion.
Many conservative religious leaders welcomed the ruling, including Brent Leatherwood, president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s public policy wing.
“If the government can compel an individual to speak a certain way or create certain things, that’s not freedom — it’s subjugation. And that is precisely what the state of Colorado wanted,” said Leatherwood.
Francis DeBernardo, executive director of New Ways Ministry, which advocates for greater LGBTQ+ acceptance in the Catholic Church, said the decision “dangerously allows religious beliefs to be weaponized for discrimination.”
“Religion should be a tool to help unite people across ideological lines, not cause greater isolation into camps that oppose one another,” he said.
Christine Zuba, a transgender woman from Blackwood, New Jersey, has been active in seeking to increase acceptance of trans people in the Catholic Church. She said the justices who made the “extremely disappointing and concerning” ruling were “naïve” to think the decision wouldn’t lead to discrimination against other groups as well.
While some small businesses could use the ruling to stop serving some customers, they should be aware that there will be repercussions, said Gene Marks, owner of The Marks Group, a small business consulting firm in Bala Cynwyd, Pennsylvania.
“If you’re a business and you’re going to turn down customers just because they’re different or your religion doesn’t support their style of life, fair enough, but it’s going to be a loss of revenue to you not only from that customer, but also from their friends, their family, their community,” he said. “And it can also be potentially bad press regardless of how the Supreme Court rules.”
AP journalists Geoff Mulvihill in Cherry Hill, New Jersey; John Hanna in Topeka, Kansas; David Crary and Mae Anderson in New York; Meg Kinnard in Columbia, South Carolina; and Jessica Gresko in Washington contributed to this story. Boone reported from Boise, Idaho.