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303 Creative LLC v. Elenis

United States District Court, D. Colorado

May 17, 2019

303 CREATIVE LLC, and LORIE SMITH, Plaintiffs,
v.
AUBREY ELENIS, ANTHONY ARAGON, ULYSSES J. CHANEY, MIGUEL RENE ELIAS, CAROL FABRIZIO, HEIDI HESS, RITA LEWIS, JESSICA POCOCK, and PHIL WEISER[1], Defendants.

          OPINION AND ORDER DENYING MOTION FOR PRELIMINARY INJUNCTION AND MOTION FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT

          MARCIA S. KRIEGER CHIEF JUDGE

         THIS MATTER comes before the Court on the Plaintiffs' Motion for Preliminary Injunction (# 6) and the Plaintiffs' Motion for Summary Judgment (# 48), the corresponding response and reply briefs, and the parties' recent supplemental briefing (# 67, 68).

         FACTS

         Plaintiff Lorie Smith, through her wholly-owned company 303 Creative, LLC (“303”), is engaged generally in the fields of graphic design, website design, social media management and consultation, marketing, branding strategy, and website management training. This case concerns Ms. Smith's intention to expand 303's business into the design of custom websites for customers planning weddings - that is, websites to keep a couple's friends and family informed about the upcoming wedding.

         Ms. Smith describes herself as a Christian and states that her religious beliefs are central to her identity. She believes that she must use her talents in a manner that glorifies God and that she must use her creative talents in operating 303 in a way that she believes will honor and please him. Consistent with those beliefs, Ms. Smith desire to limit the scope of her services. Although she is willing to work with all people regardless of their race, religion, gender, and sexual orientation, she “will decline any request to design, create, or promote content that: contradicts biblical truth; demeans or disparages others; promotes sexual immorality; supports the destruction of unborn children; incites violence; or promotes any conception of marriage other than marriage between one man and one woman.” This restriction precludes provision of wedding website services for same-sex couples.

         Ms. Smith has prepared a proposed statement (“the Statement”) that she intends to post on 303's website to explain 303's policies: It reads:

I love weddings.
Each wedding is a story in itself, the story of a couple and their special love for each other.
I have the privilege of telling the story of your love and commitment by designing a stunning website that promotes your special day and communicates a unique story about your wedding -from the tale of the engagement, to the excitement of the wedding day, to the beautiful life you are building together.
I firmly believe that God is calling me to this work. Why? I am personally convicted that He wants me - during these uncertain times for those who believe in biblical marriage - to shine His light and not stay silent. He is calling me to stand up for my faith, to explain His true story about marriage, and to use the talents and business He gave me to publicly proclaim and celebrate His design for marriage as a life-long union between one man and one woman.
These same religious convictions that motivate me also prevent me from creating websites promoting and celebrating ideas or messages that violate my beliefs. So I will not be able to create websites for same-sex marriages or any other marriage that is not between one man and one woman. Doing that would compromise my Christian witness and tell a story about marriage that contradicts God's true story of marriage-the very story He is calling me to promote.

         Ms. Smith acknowledges that her intended website activities conflict with Colorado law, specifically C.R.S. § 24-34-601(2).[2] That statute provides:

It is a discriminatory practice and unlawful for a person … directly or indirectly, to publish . . . any written, electronic, or printed communication, notice, or advertisement that indicates that the full and equal enjoyment of the goods, services, facilities, privileges, advantages, or accommodations of a place of public accommodation will be refused, withheld from, or denied an individual or that an individual's patronage or presence at a place of public accommodation is unwelcome, objectionable, unacceptable, or undesirable because of . . . sexual orientation. (Hereafter, the “Communication Clause”)

         Violations of the Communications Clauses are enforced administratively by the Colorado Civil Rights Commission (“CCRC”) and may be independently prosecuted by the Colorado Attorney General.

         Believing that these provisions of Colorado law abridge her rights under the U.S. Constitution, Ms. Smith commenced this action against the Defendants, the members of the CCRC (in their official capacities), and against Phil Weiser, Colorado's current Attorney General (also in his official capacity). At present, Ms. Smith asserts a challenge to the Communication Clause, contending that it violates the Free Speech, Free Press, and Free Exercise clauses of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, and the Equal Protection and Due Process clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment. Because Ms. Smith has tendered the specific content of the Statement she intends to post, the Court treats her claims as asserting an as-applied challenge.[3]

         Simultaneously with the Complaint, Ms. Smith sought a preliminary injunction (#6) to restrain the CCRC from enforcing the Communication Clause against her and 303. The parties eventually agreed that the Motion for Preliminary Injunction should be determined in conjunction with a determination on the merits through the mechanism of summary judgment. Consequently, the Plaintiffs filed their Motion for Summary Judgment (#48), and the parties filed stipulated facts (#49). Those facts are deemed incorporated herein and discussed in more detail below.

         After briefing was completed, the United States Supreme Court granted certiorari in a case involving similar facts and legal issues and raising issues of the constitutionality of the Public Accommodation Statute. This Court deferred consideration of the issues in this case, anticipating a dispositive substantive ruling by the Supreme Court on the issues presented here. However, in Masterpiece Cakeshop, Ltd. v. Colorado Civil Rights Com'n, , 138 S.Ct. 1719 (2018), the Supreme Court avoided a ruling on the merits, returning the case to the lower courts. In light of the Masterpiece decision (and other decisions by the Supreme Court during the same term), the parties filed supplemental briefs (# 67, 68). The motions for preliminary injunction and summary judgment motions in this case are now ripe for determination.

         For purposes of this ruling, the Court need only evaluate Ms. Smith's summary judgment motion.[4] That motion was filed prior to the Court's dismissal of any Accommodation Clause challenge, making it somewhat difficult to extract those remaining arguments that remain pertinent to the Communication Clause itself. It appears to the Court that Ms. Smith alleges that: (i) the CCRC's anticipated application of the Communication Clause to her Statement violates the Equal Protection clause of the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution because the CCRC does not prosecute similarly-situated businesses expressing different religious beliefs; (ii) the Communication Clause violates the Substantive Due Process clause, in that it is vague and overbroad; (iii) the Communication Clause violates an otherwise unspecified constitutional right to “personal autonomy”; (iv) the Communication clause violates Ms. Smith's free speech rights in various ways, in violation of the First Amendment; and (iv) the Communication Clause constitutes a substantial burden on Ms. Smith's free exercise of religion, as guaranteed by the First Amendment, and does not survive strict scrutiny.

         ANALYSIS

         The Court begins by recognizing certain facts that are not in dispute. As is clear under the Public Accommodations Law, the Colorado legislature has determined that discrimination against persons on the basis of sexual orientation is contrary to the public interest and thus, is prohibited in this state. This case does not invite this Court to weigh in on whether that law reflects sound policy or not. Rather, it is simply a fact: it is an unlawful act for a person to discriminate against others on the basis of sexual orientation in Colorado in the circumstances covered by the Public Accommodations Law.

         In addition, it appears to be undisputed that the act Ms. Smith wishes to engage in - posting the Statement on her website -would violate the Communication Clause. Ms. Smith concedes that the Statement “indicates that the full and equal enjoyment of the services” that 303 provides “will be withheld from [potential customers] because of sexual orientation” -specifically, that same-sex couples could not hire 303 to design a website for their wedding, even though opposite-sex couples could.

         The Court also emphasizes that it is not deciding whether Ms. Smith has a colorable constitutional right to refuse to provide wedding website services to same-sex couples. That question implicates the Accommodation Clause of the Public Accommodations Law which is not challenged.[5] Instead, in this action the Court is limited to analyzing the constitutionality of the application of the Communication Clause. Thus, the analysis is extremely narrow. The Court assumes the constitutionality of the Accommodation Clause which prohibits discrimination against same-sex couples in the creation of wedding websites.[6] The only question presented at this juncture is whether the Communication Clause unconstitutionally prohibits Ms. Smith from posting the Statement, which promises (or, if one would prefer, threatens) prospective customers that she will refuse service to customers who wish her to create a wedding website for a same-sex wedding.

         As to this issue the parties have stipulated to all pertinent facts, the Court applies the law to those facts to render a determination on the Plaintiffs' summary judgment motion. Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a).

         A. Summary judgment standard

         Rule 56 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure facilitates the entry of a judgment only if no trial is necessary. See White v. York Intern. Corp., 45 F.3d 357, 360 (10th Cir. 1995). Summary adjudication is authorized when there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and a party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). Substantive law governs what facts are material and what issues must be determined. It also specifies the elements that must be proved for a given claim or defense, sets the standard of proof and identifies the party with the burden of proof. See Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986); Kaiser-Francis Oil Co. v. Producer's Gas Co., 870 F.2d 563, 565 (10th Cir. 1989). A factual dispute is “genuine” and summary judgment is precluded if the evidence presented in support of and opposition to the motion is so contradictory that, if presented at trial, a judgment could enter for either party. See Anderson, 477 U.S. at 248. When considering a summary judgment motion, a court views all evidence in the light most favorable to the non-moving party, thereby favoring the right to a trial. See Garrett v. Hewlett Packard Co., 305 F.3d 1210, 1213 (10th Cir. 2002).

         If the movant has the burden of proof on a claim or defense, the movant must establish every element of its claim or defense by sufficient, competent evidence. See Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(c)(1)(A). Once the moving party has met its burden, to avoid summary judgment the responding party must present sufficient, competent, contradictory evidence to establish a genuine factual dispute. See Bacchus Indus., Inc. v. Arvin Indus., Inc., 939 F.2d 887, 891 (10th Cir. 1991); Perry v. Woodward, 199 F.3d 1126, 1131 (10th Cir. 1999). If there is a genuine dispute as to a material fact, a trial is ...


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