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  • Jennifer Burton

Discrimination in the Workplace: Refusal of Service to Protected Class

In a Supreme Court decision on Friday, June 30, 2023, the conservative majority ruled that a graphic artist who professes to be Christian, can legally refuse to provide service to a gay couple. Lorie Smith, the graphic artist in this case who designs wedding websites, argued that the Colorado state law prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation, race, gender, and other characteristics, actually denied her right to free speech.

The court ruled 6-3 that Smith was in fact within her legal rights to refuse service to a gay couple. As a creative business owner and artist, Smith’s supporters argued that if the court did not rule in her favor, it would be setting a precedent that forced artists to do work that was against their beliefs. Opponents in this case contended that a win in Smith’s favor would set a standard that allows business owners to deny service to people based on a variety of protected classes such as race, religion, and ethnicity, in addition to sexual orientation.

Justice Neil Gorsuch who supported the decision of the six conservative judges, wrote in a statement that 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.” On the other side, Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote a statement supported by the liberal justices on the court, in which she maintained, “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.” These two viewpoints are clearly oppositional, as the supporters of the decision see it as a right to free speech and free thought, while the opponents of the decision view it as a refusal to serve individuals who belong to a protected class, which could be perceived by many as a discriminatory decision by the business owner.

The Supreme Court’s interpretation of federal civil rights laws over the past several years has given same-sex couples equal access to federal benefits for married couples since 2015, and protected gay, lesbian, and transgender people from employment discrimination since 2020. With these expansions of rights for the LGBTQ community, though, the court has also been careful to note that individuals with differing religious views that oppose gay rights should also be respected.

Discrimination in the workplace, whether refusal to serve a customer or discrimination amongst employees or between a supervisor and an employee, is one of the many employment law issues we tackle on a regular basis at Gomerman | Bourn & Associates. If you or someone you know has been a victim of employment discrimination based on a protected class, call us for a FREE consultation at (415) 545-8608 or email us at info@gobolaw.com.


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