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Experts weigh in on what’s next after 303 Creative ruling

Sources find reasons to be apprehensive but also hopeful

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United States Supreme Court (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

Following the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling on Friday in 303 Creative v. Elenis, three experts connected with the Washington Blade to share their analysis of the case and expectations for what may come after the fallout.

James Dale was the named plaintiff in Boy Scouts of America v. Dale, a case challenging the organization’s policy of excluding homosexuals from its membership that was decided by the Supreme Court in 2000. The majority opinion in 303 Creative, authored by Justice Neil Gorsuch and joined by the Court’s five other conservative justices, cited Dale’s case dozens of times.

Beth Littrell is the Southern Poverty Law Center’s senior attorney, having previously worked on litigation teams at Lambda Legal and the ACLU, including on a case that Justice Sonia Sotomayor highlighted in her widely read dissenting opinion in the 303 Creative case.

Christopher Cooper is a civil rights attorney who serves as director of legal affairs and legislative initiatives at the Rainbow Youth Project, having previously worked at the U.S. Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division.

All objected to Friday’s ruling that plaintiff Lori Smith may on First Amendment grounds refuse to provide services requested in connection with same-sex weddings, notwithstanding Colorado’s law prohibiting businesses from discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. The sources fear future cases will seek to widen the aperture for the types of businesses that may claim similar exemptions on the basis of their proprietors’ faith beliefs.

While unsurprising given the Court’s conservative supermajority, Littrell said the decision was nevertheless “a kick in the teeth.”

“Public accommodation laws play such a critical role in ensuring that vulnerable populations have access to the marketplace,” she said, adding that they are “only a small part way of getting the country to some modicum of equal justice, equality, for vulnerable populations.”

The majority opinion in 303 Creative takes pains to distinguish some services provided by Smith’s business as constituting original works of artistic expression, but when it comes to the applicability of its ruling, Littrell said the Court did not make “that distinction very clear.”

“And more than that,” she said, “I don’t know that there is a distinction here.”

“The way public accommodation laws generally work is there is no distinction — that you open your doors, and where there are anti-discrimination laws, you have to abide by them,” Littrell said.

With this majority opinion, the conservatives have “basically said that you have a constitutional right to discriminate if you’re doing anything” that constitutes “artistic or other expression,” Cooper said.

The ruling will be followed by “a lot of litigation,” he added.

Littrell said she has “some realistic fears that it’s opening the door — that [businesses] that offer pure speech will be the first shoe to fall and that there will be cases to follow” as well as instances in which firms discriminate against or otherwise turn away customers “under the justification that there’s either some expressive elements to the services that are being requested or other individual liberties that are protected by the Constitution.”

“I have no doubt that conservatives and people who want to be able to discriminate against those they disagree with, or people they don’t want to associate with, will attempt to push the boundaries” of the ruling, Littrell said.

“If we crack the door on allowing discrimination of any type against any protected class of people,” Cooper warned, “someone will open the door wide open.”

“Many religious groups do not believe in inter-racial, inter-faith, or even divorcee marriages,” he said, “And keep in mind that any moral or ethical belief about what is ‘right and wrong’ that are sincerely held with the strength of traditional religious views may meet the definition of a sincerely held religious belief.

The three sources also noted unresolved questions around whether the plaintiff suffered legally cognizable injury or received even one request to render services that would constitute speech about same-sex marriage with which she disagrees.

Smith was represented by the right-wing impact litigation group Alliance Defending Freedom, which is deemed an anti-LGBTQ hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center.

“I always thought the Supreme Court took cases based on real facts and real people, not ones that a right wing group like the Alliance Defending Freedom creates out of thin air to justify future discrimination,” said Dale.

Anti-LGBTQ forces on the right, whether they endeavor to pass hateful bills in the legislatures or create them with the courts, have been known to rely on “myths and misconceptions” and have demonstrated they will “stoop to ginning up a case,” Littrell said.

“You know,” Cooper said, Gorsuch tells Justice Sotomayor “‘You’re imagining things and creating scenarios that this does not cover,'” but at the same time, his majority opinion is “basically base[d]” on “a scenario that may or may not have happened.”

Reporting in the New Republic has cast doubt on the veracity of a document filed by Smith and her counsel, ADF CEO Kristen Waggoner, that purports to show a request filed by a prospective client for services from 303 Creative in connection with a same-sex wedding.

Loss offers reasons to be hopeful

“I’m hopeful that we’re marching in the right direction, that there’s some swings in the pendulum — and we’re certainly experiencing some backsliding — but that in the end this decision will be cabined in some way,” Littrell said.

Sotomayor’s powerful dissent notes that with 303 Creative, “a business open to the public” has been granted “a constitutional right to refuse to serve members of a protected class” for the first time in the Court’s history.

She detailed some of the ways in which LGBTQ people have been harmed by the sting of discrimination over the years, including with an anecdote from a real case filed in 2017.

“Imagine a funeral home in rural Mississippi agrees to transport and cremate the body of an elderly man who has passed away, and to host a memorial lunch,” Sotomayor wrote in her dissent, but “Upon learning that the man’s surviving spouse is also a man, however, the funeral home refuses to deal with the family.”

“Grief stricken, and now isolated and humiliated, the family desperately searches for another funeral home that will take the body,” she wrote. “They eventually find one more than 70 miles away. This ostracism, this otherness, is among the most distressing feelings that can be felt by our social species.”

Littrell, who brought that case against the funeral home when practicing at Lambda Legal, said it was remarkable to see the Supreme Court, with a “strong and powerful, big picture” dissenting opinion, “identify a case that was a fight worth fighting.”

Sotomayor had signaled “That was a story worth telling,” Littrell said, “Even though in the end, you know, we didn’t get a precedent out of the case,” which was settled.

Referring to 303 Creative, she said, “As we lose cases that feel so devastating,” it is important to remember “sometimes you lose forward” because they can usher in a change in the tide of public opinion.

Dale said his case followed a similar trajectory. As a young Scoutmaster, he had spoken at a conference about the importance of educators mentoring LGBTQ teens, which, when it appeared in the newspaper, prompted leadership to instruct Dale to cut all ties with the Scouts.

“By five-four decision, the conservative majority on the court gave the Boy Scouts a First Amendment shield, protecting them from New Jersey’s gay rights law, which is kind of what we see going on here,” Dale told the Blade.

While the Scouts won, Dale said it was a “Pyrrhic victory.”

“Ultimately, over the course of, you know, 10, 15 years, the Boy Scouts lost a colossal amount of membership,” he said. “They lost money, they lost funders, they lost the public support and goodwill that essentially made them the Boy Scouts of America.”

“As a result of their victory in the Supreme Court, they had that devastating backlash,” Dale said.

“The takeaway I have now, as we had this kind of narrow defeat in the Supreme Court with this [303] Creative decision: the Supreme Court isn’t the final say,” Dale said.

“That’s not where it ends. It ends with the people and ends with the American public and convincing our families our neighbors our bosses, the people that surround us about why this is wrong.”

“The loss that I experienced was a catalyst for something wonderful,” Dale said. “It was a catalyst for making people speak out and stand up for what they believe in” — putting everyone on the record about where they stand when it comes to anti-LGBTQ discrimination.”

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U.S. Supreme Court

Supreme Court rules to preserve access to abortion medication

Case is Alliance for Hippocratic Medicine v. FDA

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The abortifacent drug mifepristone is marketed under the brand name Mifeprex (Photo courtesy of Danco Laboratories)

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled Thursday in a much-anticipated decision against efforts by conservative doctors and medical groups challenging access to mifepristone, one of two pharmaceuticals used in medication abortions. As a result of the high court’s decision, access to the drug won’t change.

Associate Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, writing for the court, reversed a lower court decision that would have made it more difficult to obtain the drug, which is used in about two-thirds of U.S. abortions. The ruling however was narrow in scope as it only addressed what is known as legal standing in a case.

SCOTUSblog senior court reporter Amy Howe noted that Kavanaugh acknowledged what he characterized as the challengers’ “sincere legal, moral, ideological, and policy objections” to elective abortion “by others” and to FDA’s 2016 and 2021 changes to the conditions on the use of the drug.

But the challengers had not shown that they would be harmed by the FDA’s mifepristone policies, he explained, and under the Constitution, merely objecting to abortion and the FDA’s policies are not enough to bring a case in federal court. The proper place to voice those objections, he suggested, is in the political or regulatory arena.

“Under Article III of the Constitution, a plaintiff’s desire to make a drug less available for others does not establish standing to sue,” Kavanaugh wrote.

“We are pleased with the Supreme Court’s decision in this incredibly important case. By rejecting the Fifth Circuit’s radical, unprecedented and unsupportable interpretation of who has standing to sue, the justices reaffirmed longstanding basic principles of administrative law,” said Abigail Long, a spokesperson for Danco. “The decision also safeguards access to a drug that has decades of safe and effective use.”

The White House released a statement from President Joe Biden on Supreme Court Decision on FDA v. Alliance for Hippocratic Medicine:

“Today’s decision does not change the fact that the fight for reproductive freedom continues. It does not change the fact that the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade two years ago, and women lost a fundamental freedom. It does not change the fact that the right for a woman to get the treatment she needs is imperiled if not impossible in many states.
 
It does mean that mifepristone, or medication abortion, remains available and approved. Women can continue to access this medication – approved by the FDA as safe and effective more than 20 years ago. 
 
But let’s be clear: attacks on medication abortion are part of Republican elected officials’ extreme and dangerous agenda to ban abortion nationwide. Since the overturning of Roe v. Wade, Republican elected officials have imposed extreme abortion bans in 21 states, some of which include zero exceptions for rape or incest. Women are being turned away from emergency rooms, or forced to go to court to plead for care that their doctor recommended or to travel hundreds of miles for care. Doctors and nurses are being threatened with jail time, including life in prison, for providing the health care they have been trained to provide. And contraception and IVF are under attack.
 
The stakes could not be higher for women across America. Vice President Harris and I stand with the vast majority of Americans who support a woman’s right to make deeply personal health care decisions. We will continue to fight to ensure that women in every state get the health care they need and we will continue to call on Congress to restore the protections of Roe v. Wade in federal law — that is our commitment.”

U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Texas Judge Matthew Kacsmaryk in Amarillo, Texas, in a ruling a year ago, waved aside decades of scientific approval, ruled that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration improperly approved mifepristone more than 20 years ago in 2000.

Kacsmaryk, appointed to the federal bench by former President Donald Trump, in his 67 page opinion wrote that the FDA’s two-decade-old approval violated a federal rule that allows for accelerated approval for certain drugs and, along with subsequent actions by the agency, was unlawful.

The suit, Alliance for Hippocratic Medicine v. FDA, was originally filed in the U.S. District Court for the North District of Texas in mid-November by Alliance Defending Freedom, an anti-abortion, anti-LGBTQ+ legal organization.

Applauding Kacsmaryk’s ruling, Erik Baptist, speaking for the Alliance Defending Freedom said in a statement: “By illegally approving dangerous chemical abortion drugs, the FDA put women and girls in harm’s way, and it’s high time the agency is held accountable for its reckless actions.”

Erin Hawley, a senior attorney for the conservative group Alliance Defending Freedom who argued the case at the Supreme Court, said the opinion was “disappointing,” but told reporters in a press gaggle after the ruling that the explicit mention of conscience protections was a victory.

“The Supreme Court was crystal clear that pro life doctors do have federal conscience protections, even in emergency situations,” Hawley said. “So that’s a huge win for the pro-life cause. The Supreme Court clearly said that our doctors are entitled to those federal conscious protections that are based on their religious beliefs.”

The case now returns to the lower courts, and the dispute over access to the drug likely is not over. 

SCOTUSblog also reported that Nancy Northrup, the president and CEO of the Center for Reproductive Rights, praised the decision but conceded that the dispute could continue even after Thursday’s ruling. She, too, noted that the three states “could still attempt to keep the case going, including taking it back up to the Supreme Court,” and she warned that access to mifepristone “is still at risk nationwide.”

The Hill notes that for instance, the same district court in Texas that originally ruled against the FDA said a group of three red states—Missouri, Idaho and Kansas— can intervene in the lawsuit.

“I would expect the litigation to continue with those states raising different standing arguments than made by our doctors,” ADF’s Hawley told reporters.

Equality California, the nation’s largest statewide LGBTQ+ civil rights organization, emailed the Blade the following statement from Executive Director Tony Hoang in response to a unanimous ruling by the United States Supreme Court:

“We appreciate today’s unanimous decision to uphold access to the abortion drug mifepristone, authored by a conservative Justice. This ruling reinforces the critical importance of maintaining accessible reproductive healthcare and highlights the necessity of safeguarding these rights from baseless legal attacks.

However, it is imperative to recognize that the Court should never have accepted this case. The so-called Alliance for Hippocratic Medicine lacked the standing to initiate this challenge. Moreover, federal conscience exemptions already exist for healthcare providers who object to offering abortion-related care. 

Medication abortions involving mifepristone constitute the majority of abortions in America, including those sought by LGBTQ+ people. Our community understands the necessity of bodily autonomy and the right to make decisions regarding our own medical care, including reproductive care. Patients deserve access to the medications they need, and providers should be able to deliver that care without unwarranted interference from extremist courts or politicians.   

Attacks on abortion do not end with this decision; millions of people nationwide are still unable to get abortion care and abortion opponents remain focused on their end goal of a nationwide abortion ban. 

Equality California will continue to work with our legislative partners in Sacramento and Washington, D.C., as well as organizational allies, like Planned Parenthood, to help protect and expand access to abortion and reproductive healthcare.”

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U.S. Supreme Court

Supreme Court declines to hear lawsuit against Montgomery County schools gender guidelines

4th Circuit last August dismissed parents’ case

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U.S. Supreme Court (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday declined to hear a lawsuit against Montgomery County Public Schools guidelines that allow schools to create plans in support of transgender or gender nonconfirming students without their parents’ knowledge or consent.

Three parents of students in the school district — none of whom have trans or gender nonconfirming children — filed the lawsuit. 

A judge on the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals last August dismissed the case. The plaintiffs appealed the decision to the Supreme Court.

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U.S. Supreme Court

US Supreme Court rules Idaho to enforce gender care ban

House Bill 71 signed in 2023

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U.S. Supreme Court (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

BY MIA MALDONADO | The U.S. Supreme Court has allowed Idaho to enforce House Bill 71, a law banning Idaho youth from receiving gender-affirming care medications and surgeries.

In an opinion issued Monday, the U.S. Supreme Court granted the state of Idaho’s request to stay the preliminary injunction, which blocked the law from taking effect. This means the preliminary injunction now only applies to the plaintiffs involved in Poe v. Labrador — a lawsuit brought on by the families of two transgender teens in Idaho who seek gender-affirming care. 

Monday’s Supreme Court decision enforces the gender-affirming care ban for all other trans youth in Idaho as the lawsuit remains ongoing in the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.

Idaho Attorney General Raúl Labrador
Idaho Attorney General Raúl Labrador gives a speech at the Idaho GOP election night watch party at the Grove Hotel in Boise, Idaho, on Nov. 8, 2022. (Otto Kitsinger for Idaho Capital Sun)

The American Civil Liberties Union and the ACLU of Idaho, both of whom represent the plaintiffs, said in a press release Monday that the ruling “does not touch upon the constitutionality” of HB 71. The groups called Monday’s ruling an “awful result” for trans Idaho youth and their families.

“Today’s ruling allows the state to shut down the care that thousands of families rely on while sowing further confusion and disruption,” the organizations said in the press release. “Nonetheless, today’s result only leaves us all the more determined to defeat this law in the courts entirely, making Idaho a safer state to raise every family.”

Idaho Attorney General Raúl Labrador in a press release said the state has a duty to protect and support all children, and that he is proud of the state’s legal stance. 

“Those suffering from gender dysphoria deserve love, support and medical care rooted in biological reality,” Labrador said. “Denying the basic truth that boys and girls are biologically different hurts our kids. No one has the right to harm children, and I’m grateful that we, as the state, have the power — and duty — to protect them.”

Recap of Idaho’s HB 71, and what led to SCOTUS opinion

Monday’s Supreme Court decision traces back to when HB 71 was signed into law in April 2023.

The law makes it a felony punishable for up to 10 years for doctors to provide surgeries, puberty-blockers and hormones to trans people under the age of 18. However, gender-affirming surgeries are not and were not performed among Idaho adults or youth before the bill was signed into law, the Idaho Capital Sun previously reported

One month after it was signed into law, the families of two trans teens sued the state in a lawsuit alleging the bill violates the 14th Amendment’s guarantee of equal protection under the law.

In late December, just days before the law was set to take effect in the new year, U.S. District Judge B. Lynn Winmill blocked the law from taking effect under a preliminary injunction. In his decision, he said he found the families likely to succeed in their challenge.

The state of Idaho responded by appealing the district court’s preliminary injunction decision to the Ninth Circuit, to which the Ninth Circuit denied. The state of Idaho argued the court should at least enforce the ban for everyone except for the plaintiffs. 

After the Ninth Circuit’s denial, the Idaho Attorney General’s Office in February sent an emergency motion to the U.S. Supreme Court, the Idaho Press reported. Monday’s U.S. Supreme Court decision agrees with the state’s request to enforce its ban on trans health care for minors, except for the two plaintiffs.

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Mia Maldonado

Mia Maldonado joined the Idaho Capital Sun after working as a breaking news reporter at the Idaho Statesman covering stories related to crime, education, growth and politics. She previously interned at the Idaho Capital Sun through the Voces Internship of Idaho, an equity-driven program for young Latinos to work in Idaho news. Born and raised in Coeur d’Alene, Mia moved to the Treasure Valley for college where she graduated from the College of Idaho with a bachelor’s degree in Spanish and international political economy.

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The preceding piece was previously published by the Idaho Capital Sun and is republished with permission.

The Idaho Capital Sun is the Gem State’s newest nonprofit news organization delivering accountability journalism on state politics, health care, tax policy, the environment and more.

We’re part of States Newsroom, the nation’s largest state-focused nonprofit news organization.

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