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Supreme Court rules in favor of web designer who refused work for same-sex weddings

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

In another big ruling, the Supreme Court supported a Colorado web designer. She started a business to make web pages for weddings. She said she feared that she might someday be forced to prepare a page for a gay wedding, so she sued. And the court's conservative majority said she was not - would not have to do that page despite a Colorado state law promising equal public accommodations to all. NPR legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg is here. Nina, good morning.

NINA TOTENBERG, BYLINE: Good morning.

INSKEEP: What was the court's justification for supporting the web designer?

TOTENBERG: Well, this was a pretty dramatic scene again in the courtroom today with Justice Neil Gorsuch announcing the majority holding and then a lengthy dissent from the bench from Justice Sonia Sotomayor. And I just should say that these oral dissents are rare, and we've had three of them in the last two days after a term in which we had none of them. So what did Justice Gorsuch say? He said that if there is a North Star in our Constitution, it is freedom of speech and freedom to believe what you want to believe, and that the government can't compel you to speak. And then he said, in this case, Colorado seeks to force an individual to speak in ways that align with its views but defy her conscience as a matter of major significance.

INSKEEP: I'm just thinking about this for a second here. So there's the equal protection of the laws which would protect gay and lesbian people to get the same service as anybody else. But she's pushing back, and Gorsuch is pushing back with the First Amendment in saying making this web page is speech, and I don't want to have this speech, and so that's violating my free speech right. Is that correct?

TOTENBERG: It's a classic and very difficult clash that the court has repeatedly resolved in, one would have to say, different ways and with both lead justices in this case citing the different ways. For example, Gorsuch said we held in the middle of World War II that there is no right of the state to force children to salute the flag. We've held that when there's a veterans parade and they don't want to include a gay pride float, they don't have to because those are their personal beliefs. And he concluded by saying this. Of course, abiding the Constitution's commitment to freedom of speech means all of us will encounter ideas we consider difficult, unattractive, misguided, even hurtful. But tolerance, not coercion, is our nation's answer. The First Amendment envisions the United States as a rich and complex place where all persons are free to think and speak as they wish, not as the government demands.

INSKEEP: And they also - so using the language of diversity to support the web designer here, also drawing a fine distinction because the web designer said she is willing to serve all customers, including people who are gay and lesbian, just not willing to provide them with the service that they asked for.

TOTENBERG: Not just - not willing to provide the message they want.

INSKEEP: OK. And how does Sonia Sotomayor, who dissented, see this differently?

TOTENBERG: Well, she said, you know, the message here, even the time and place of the wedding, she won't do. And she said this makes a mockery of our law and our traditions. She also cited lots of cases. She noted, for example, that in a previous case, a law partnership didn't want to promote a woman and said that it had a First Amendment right to associate with people it wishes to associate with. And the court didn't buy that. She said, the court has bravely stood up to efforts like this in other cases, and today it shrinks. Let me just pull - you're going to hear a little rustling.

INSKEEP: While you're rustling, I'll quote Sotomayor. Today, the court, for the first time in its history, grants a business open to the public a constitutional right to refuse to serve members of a protected class. You've got a couple more seconds, Nina. What were you reaching for there?

TOTENBERG: I was reaching for her saying that this is a backlash to gay rights and people. And it puts people in castes. Some people can be served. Some people can't.

INSKEEP: Nina, thanks very much for your insights. It's always a pleasure hearing from you at the Supreme Court.

TOTENBERG: Thank you.

INSKEEP: NPR's Nina Totenberg. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
Nina Totenberg is NPR's award-winning legal affairs correspondent. Her reports air regularly on NPR's critically acclaimed newsmagazines All Things Considered, Morning Edition, and Weekend Edition.