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Neil Gorsuch has a problem with telling the truth

Gorsuch hands a victory to the Christian right by making false claims about an important First Amendment case.

Justice Neil M. Gorsuch arrives at the US Capitol ahead of the inauguration of President Joe Biden on January 20, 2021, in Washington, DC.
Melina Mara/Getty Images
Ian Millhiser is a senior correspondent at Vox, where he focuses on the Supreme Court, the Constitution, and the decline of liberal democracy in the United States. He received a JD from Duke University and is the author of two books on the Supreme Court.

On Thursday, Justice Neil Gorsuch released a 26-page opinion venting outrage about a legal dispute that does not exist, involving websites that do not exist. Yet this case, built on imaginary grounds, will have very real consequences for LGBTQ consumers, and for anti-discrimination laws more broadly. All of the Court’s Republican appointees joined Gorsuch’s opinion in 303 Creative v. Elenis.

That said, the fake dispute that Gorsuch imagines in his 303 Creative opinion involves a reasonably narrow legal question.

In the past, Christian right advocates have sought sweeping exemptions from state and federal civil rights laws, rooted in their expansive notion of “religious liberty.” Often, these lawsuits claimed that the Constitution’s safeguards for people of faith allow anyone who objects to LGBTQ people on religious grounds to defy any law prohibiting anti-LGBTQ discrimination.

303 Creative involves a much narrower dispute. The case centers on Lorie Smith, a website designer who wishes to expand her business into designing wedding websites — something she has never done before. She says she’s reluctant to do so, however, because she fears that if she designs such a website for an opposite-sex couple, Colorado’s anti-discrimination law will compel her to also design wedding websites for same-sex couples. And Smith objects to same-sex marriages.

As Gorsuch summarizes her claim, Smith “worries that, if she [starts designing wedding websites,] Colorado will force her to express views with which she disagrees.”

This is not a religious liberty claim, it is a free speech claim, rooted in well-established law, which says that the First Amendment forbids the government from compelling people to say something that they would rather not say. In ruling in Smith’s favor, the Court does not say that any religious conservative can defy any anti-discrimination law. It simply holds that someone like Smith, who publishes words for a living, may refuse to say something they don’t want to say.

The full implications of Gorsuch’s opinion are not entirely clear. In the past, religious conservatives have argued that artists and artisans of all kinds — including bakers, photographers, and floral arrangement designers — should also be allowed to discriminate under the First Amendment, because all artistic work necessarily entails some kind of expression. Gorsuch punts on this question, writing that “hypotheticals about photographers, stationers, and others, asking if they too provide expressive services covered by the First Amendment,” are not present in the 303 Creative case.

And it is worth emphasizing that the particular kind of work that Smith does, writing words on a publicly available website, fits more snugly within the First Amendment than a similar claim brought by a wedding cake designer or a florist.

Before this case was argued, I wrote that if Lorie Smith had been approached by a same-sex couple and refused to design a wedding website for them, and if she had then been sued for refusing to do so, then she would have a very strong First Amendment defense against such a suit. As the Supreme Court said in Rumsfeld v. Forum for Academic and Institutional Rights (2006), “freedom of speech prohibits the government from telling people what they must say.” And that includes the right of a web designer to refuse to write words on a website that they do not wish to write.

But none of these events have actually happened. And, for that reason, the Supreme Court should have dismissed the case.

This case should have never made it this far

The frustrating thing about this case is that it involves an entirely fabricated legal dispute. Again, Lorie Smith has never actually made a wedding website for a paying customer. Nor has Colorado ever attempted to enforce its civil rights law against Ms. Smith. Indeed, in its brief to the Supreme Court, Colorado expressed doubt that its anti-discrimination law would even apply to Smith.

Yet Gorsuch’s majority opinion repeatedly paints Smith as a hapless victim, oppressed by wicked state officials who insist that she must proclaim a dogma that she denies. As he writes in the very first paragraph of his opinion, “Colorado does not just seek to ensure the sale of goods or services on equal terms. It seeks to use its law to compel an individual to create speech she does not believe.”

This claim is simply untrue. Colorado has not brought any enforcement action against Smith, or taken any other step to compel her to say anything at all — or to design any website that she does not want to design. Nor has anyone ever sued Smith for allegedly violating Colorado’s anti-discrimination law.

Indeed, in one particularly amusing turn, Smith alleged during an early stage of this litigation that she was approached by a man about doing some design work for his wedding to another man. Yet, after the New Republic’s Melissa Gira Grant contacted this man, she learned that he never reached out to Smith — and that he was married to a woman.

These facts matter because federal courts, including the Supreme Court, do not have jurisdiction to decide hypothetical cases. As a unanimous Supreme Court held in Texas v. United States (1998), “a claim is not ripe for adjudication if it rests upon ‘contingent future events that may not occur as anticipated, or indeed may not occur at all.’“ So the Court should have told Smith to go away and come back when she had a real dispute with the state of Colorado.

303 Creative, moreover, is the second time Gorsuch has taken such liberties with the truth in order to rule in favor of a religious conservative. Almost exactly one year ago, Gorsuch handed down the Court’s decision in Kennedy v. Bremerton School District (2022), a case about a public school football coach who, after games, would walk to the center of the 50-yard line and ostentatiously kneel down and pray before students and spectators — often while surrounded by players, community members, and even members of the press.

Indeed, in her dissent in Bremerton, Justice Sonia Sotomayor included a photo of Coach Kennedy holding such a prayer session, as a throng of uniformed football players and other individuals kneel with him, and as people holding video cameras look on.

And yet, Gorsuch’s opinion in Bremerton claimed that Kennedy merely wanted to offer a “short, private, personal prayer,” and then Gorsuch ruled in favor of Kennedy based on this fabricated version of Kennedy’s actual conduct.

Needless to say, this is aberrant behavior by a Supreme Court justice — and really by six Supreme Court justices, since all of the Court’s Republican appointees joined Gorsuch’s decisions in 303 Creative and Kennedy.

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