A Colorado artist looks to the U.S. Supreme Court to defend her right to speak freely
ne morning last March, in the middle of a difficult week, Lorie Smith pulled an interesting-looking card from her overflowing mailbox. “I’ve been praying for you since Day One,” it read. “And I just really appreciate your stand and continue to lift you in prayer.”
She was still smiling at that, minutes later, driving up to her bank. Depositing checks in the ATM, she gradually felt a growing hubbub of activity around her. Sirens, coming closer. Squad cars pulling into view. Police officers, hands on their weapons, shouting and hurrying to block the exits of the bank.
“A robbery!” she realized. “I’ve got to get out of here!” She imagined an armed suspect running out to jump in her car. She hurriedly canceled her transaction, swerved out of line, and bounced over the nearest curb. Speeding away, Lorie, who usually makes a point of going inside the bank to do her business, marveled at her deliverance. Which she realized, on reflection, was pretty consistent with the protections she’s been blessed with for most of six years now.
Between “fight or flight,” Lorie’s dad says, his oldest daughter’s instinct has always been the latter. But that was years ago, before Lorie became aware of a different kind of robbery … one plotted by government officials bent on taking one of her most basic freedoms away from her.
That injustice, Lorie decided, was one she couldn’t just run away from.
ittleton, Colorado, at the foot of the Rocky Mountains, is about as beautiful a place as you’re likely to find to grow up. Four seasons, snow-capped peaks, wildflowers and wildlife. If you can add to that loving parents, a close-knit extended family, a passel of friends, and plenty to do, you grow up thinking life is good and the world is your oyster.
“I had an incredible childhood,” Lorie remembers. She thrived on playing sports and swimming in the backyard pool, traveling with her family, and visiting with her beloved uncle and grandparents. She delighted in her grandfathers’ tales of military life, her grandmother’s prayers, and her little sister doing — sometimes — what she told her to do.
Her parents were both busy, successful entrepreneurs. She enjoyed helping with creative tasks in her mother’s women’s clothing boutique during school vacations, and hanging around her CPA dad’s piles of paper during tax season.
“I learned at a very early age that my parents worked really hard,” Lorie says. They passed that ethic on to her, along with encouragement to stand up to anyone determined to shove her around.
“There’s a gene that runs deep in this family,” her mother, Paula says — a gene she describes as an inclination to push back against injustice. But Lorie’s dad, Gary, says his daughter also inherited some other strands in her DNA.
“She’s a caregiver,” he says. “She was born that way. The stalwart — shy, introverted, sweet, and kind.”
“I always had a respect for my parents and never wanted to make life difficult for them,” Lorie says. “So, I was always more of a rule-follower. Never wanted to stir the waters.”
hat she did want to do was create. “I just loved it,” she says. “Early — like, 5, 6, 7 — I remember crafting and doing paint-by-numbers and making things for people. My poor parents. I probably created so much stuff that they were like, ‘Where do we put this?’”
Paints, pottery, metals, all intrigued her, but entering middle school, she found the Mac computers in the library, and a program that let her play with an endless variety of fonts, colors, and designs. “It was the first time I realized that I could create on a computer,” Lorie says. “I wanted to spend every moment in that Mac lab.”
She fine-tuned her artistic skills by making flyers, designing art displays, and writing ad copy for her mom’s boutique. Later, in college, she discovered web design.
Realizing that her then-employer needed a website, she offered to design it. To her delight, the public relations team put her to work on that and other marketing projects.
That employer was the state of Colorado. The same state government that, years later, would be bent on controlling the young woman whose creative talents they once so valued and respected.
n the meantime, Lorie found one great love, and lost another.
The one she found was a young man playing drums in the same high school band she was gracing with her tuba talents and saxophone serenades. She and he discovered that, in the grand old phrase, they “made beautiful music together.” Somewhere between football rallies and a European concert tour, they fell in love and, eventually, married. They both enjoyed travel and especially scuba diving, and for a while, life went along swimmingly.
Growing up, Lorie’s family were “C & E” churchgoers, she says, attending on Christmas and Easter. Lorie was fine with that at the time, but as years passed, she couldn’t shake the feeling that “something important was missing” in her life.
What she knew of faith came mainly from extended family members, including her dad’s mother — “just an incredible woman of God” — and his brother, a hard-working family man who shared his mother’s deep beliefs. His sudden death, in an accident, burned a bitterness deep into Lorie’s soul.
“I was really angry,” she remembers. “He was such a good guy. How could God take away someone so good and important to me?”
She nursed the grudge, but when her husband expressed a desire to become more involved in church, she agreed — if only to challenge God to a duel.
“I was going to disprove that He exists, and that He is good,” she says. “So, I just sat there in services and basically loaded up on ammunition to argue about later.” The strategy backfired.
“Every Sunday, it was like the Lord was slowly hacking and chipping that callous rock off my heart.” One day, she realized that “God had already been working in my life. I could see it, and things just … changed.
“When that happened, I decided that I was going to jump all in. I was going to live my life in a way that honors God. And it’s just impacted everything that I do. I see the world through a different lens now, and it’s incredible.
“I’m unable to compartmentalize,” she says. “What I believe is so important that it requires me to be ‘all in.’” That transformation enveloped even her creative talents, Lorie says.
“When I realize that what I’m doing I’m doing for His glory, that becomes the focus, and my creative outlet just explodes.
“In doing that — and putting Him first — He’s taken me in a direction I never thought I’d be going.” That new direction put her on a collision course with a government obsessed with stamping out the faith that guides her life and determines what messages she can create.
“When I realize that what I’m doing I’m doing for His glory, that becomes the focus, and my creative outlet just explodes.”
er work for the state of Colorado launched Lorie into a lively variety of jobs in both the public and private sector, each adding its own opportunity to stretch and grow her considerable creativity and burgeoning organizational skills.
But, as the years went by, Lorie felt more and more “boxed in” by corporate work. She began dreaming of opening her own studio, where she could allot all the time she wanted to the projects and causes she cared about — veterans, animal shelters, children with disabilities — and where she herself could decide what messages she would promote.
Soon after, she launched “303 Creative” — named for her Denver area code. “I love being able to choose projects that I think are a good fit for me,” Lorie says. She delights in doing a little bit of everything — marketing, advertising, graphic design, branding, website design, strategy, social media consultation — and thrives on interacting with her customers. In between, she tries to remember to bill people for her services.
“It’s like, ‘Well, I probably should get paid,’” she laughs. “But it doesn’t bring me a lot of joy. I get joy when I meet with my clients.”
She’d like that to include wedding clients. Lorie’s lifelong enthusiasm for all things wedding was magnified by the design work she did for her own ceremony, and by her faith in Christ, which the Bible relates to a marriage relationship. The prospect of blending her faith beliefs with celebrating love stories is especially appealing.
“It’s the relational side of me,” she says. “You get to know the couple, and their story.” Designing wedding websites would allow her to tell those stories in a creative way, “and I like doing that through God’s lens.”
She was about to learn that the state of Colorado was looking through a very different viewfinder.
ike most Coloradans, Lorie was familiar with cake artist Jack Phillips’ conflicts with state officials who’d ordered him to forgo making his inspired wedding creations unless he was willing to create them to celebrate same-sex unions, too.
Jack, a Christian whose faith teaches that God designed marriage as the union of one man and one woman, declined to do so. That led to legal action and a case that was eventually decided in Jack’s favor, at the Supreme Court. Still, as a result of Colorado’s law, Jack continues to face lawsuits and harassment.
One day, Lorie’s pastor, referencing Jack’s case, asked Lorie what she would do if she were asked to create a website celebrating a same-sex wedding. The question gave her pause. She works with clients who identify as LGBT, but she also holds biblical beliefs about marriage. She would not, she knew, be able to create a website expressing a message in conflict with her faith.
Seeing the strong possibility of a coming collision, her pastor suggested that Lorie contact the legal group representing Jack: Alliance Defending Freedom.
That led to a sobering conversation. ADF attorneys confirmed her fear that Colorado officials were in fact censoring her speech and could force her to create and promote messages that violated the very core of who she is. The fact that she cheerfully worked with clients from all walks of life — including those who identify as LGBT — would make no difference. Neither would the fact that her decision to create is always based on the message being celebrated, not the people involved.
That left her with three legal alternatives: 1) obeying the law (and violating her conscience), 2) staying out of the wedding field (and keeping her beliefs to herself), or 3) challenging the unjust law infringing on her freedom of speech.
“If something is inevitable, you can challenge it,” says Jonathan Scruggs, ADF senior counsel and director of the Center for Conscience Initiatives. “It’s not like the threat is unclear. Colorado is already censoring Lorie’s speech and preventing her from designing for weddings in ways consistent with her faith. Moreover, in Colorado, it’s kind of a search-and-destroy environment for artists who embrace the belief that marriage is between a man and a woman — just look at how they’ve treated Jack Phillips all these years.
She and everyone else can see the writing on the wall. “Imagine being forced to custom design and then create something that violates your core convictions,” Scruggs says, “then to publish it on the internet for the whole world to see. I can’t think of something more of an affront to your conscience than that. It’s oppressive. And the high court has never upheld something like that.”
Lorie began praying about the possibility of challenging the Colorado law. “I love helping people, whoever they are,” she says, “including those who identify as LGBT. But I shouldn’t face punishment because I believe in Jesus Christ. It’s not okay that the government can shut off someone’s voice or close their business because it doesn’t like their beliefs.
“God has blessed me with my skills and talents, and it’s a nonnegotiable for me that I use these skills and talents in a way that glorifies and honors Him.”
“It’s not about the topic of marriage … it’s about, ‘Should government officials have the power to tell Americans what they have to say?”
—Jonathan Scruggs, ADF Senior Counsel
hat same conviction prevents her from promoting certain political ideas, or atheism, or casinos. Nothing that is anti-American, degrades people who identify as LGBT, or disrespects someone’s faith.
“I always have and always will work with anyone,” Lorie says. “Like most artists, I just can’t promote all messages requested. I fully embrace the beauty of God’s design for marriage. I know some people don’t agree with that view.
But that’s the beauty of America — we should all be free to speak consistently with our beliefs — even if the government doesn’t like our beliefs.”
In the end, all of that contributed to a difficult choice: her decision to challenge an unjust law. The determination of Colorado officials to censor her would prevent her from pursuing her great passion for creating graphics and websites that honor God’s truth about marriage. She would be forced to choose between giving up her dream or compromising her faith — and she wasn’t willing to do either.
So, nudged along, perhaps, by that family gene that balks at injustice — the young woman inclined to turn from a fight instead stepped into the fray.
In September 2016, ADF filed a complaint in federal court against Colorado officials on Lorie’s behalf. And the roof caved in.
he opposition has been relentless, these last six years. From the day her case was filed, Lorie has been deluged with hate mail and cruel voices on the telephone. Threats to rape her, threats to kill her, threats to kill her husband and daughter. False Facebook accounts designed to look like 303’s, and fervent wishes for her to contract cancer.
She’s lost clients. Some friends and colleagues denounced her, and drifted away.
“It’s been a long six years,” Lorie admits. “People’s true colors come out. Maybe it’s a misunderstanding of what I’m actually asking … not understanding what my case is really about. I would love to have a more personal conversation with some of them. I can see where they’re coming from. Many years ago, I probably would’ve responded in a similar way. But then I came to know Jesus, and my life has changed.
“So, I’m an ambassador for Christ. Which is why it’s important that my projects don’t conflict with that. This is about Him, not me. And the things I’m asking for actually protect everyone. Whether they want to see that or not … that’s their choice. I’m not going to take it personally.”
“I’m an ambassador for Christ … this is about Him, not me.”
Lorie Smith at the Colorado State Capitol
he first court to hear Lorie’s case was a U.S. District Court in Colorado. That judge ruled against her. Two years later, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit also ruled against her in a decision so strange and extreme that it bolstered ADF attorneys’ confidence for a successful appeal to the Supreme Court.
Notably, both the 10th Circuit and Colorado officials acknowledge that Lorie exercises no bias in how she treats her clients — including those who identify as LGBT. Both also concede that her graphic art and websites constitute speech and expression and are protected by the First Amendment.
Yet the 10th Circuit ruled that Colorado has every right to effectively eliminate views like Lorie’s and silence her expression, forcing Lorie and others like her to publish views they do not agree with. The government, in other words, can override anyone’s First Amendment rights, and no one is allowed to dissent.
ADF attorneys filed an appeal of that decision with the Supreme Court in September 2021. As with all appeals to the high court, the chances of Lorie’s being heard were less than one percent.
She beat the odds.
Early one morning last February, she was upstairs readying her hair for the day when the phone rang.
“We’re going to the Supreme Court!” Scruggs announced.
Stunned, Lorie shouted for her husband, who was putting the trash out. Her daughter came running.
“Go get Daddy!”
He bolted up the stairs and into the bedroom, flush and thinking the ailing family dog had died.
“Is everything all right?” he gasped.
“We’re going to the Supreme Court,” she told him. And for a long minute, they just stood there, looking at each other.
Sen. Ted Cruz greets Lorie Smith at a June press conference demonstrating congressional support for her free-speech case. Also pictured are Rep. Debbie Lesko and ADF General Counsel Kristen Waggoner (far right).
he ideal outcome is the Supreme Court saying that the government can’t compel anybody’s speech,” Scruggs says. “It’s not about the topic of marriage, it’s not about anyone’s particular belief or viewpoint. It’s about, ‘Should government officials have the power to tell Americans what they have to say?’”
“If the lower court is upheld, well ….” Scruggs shrugs. “It’s dark days for the bedrock freedom of speech that every American is guaranteed by our Constitution. This is one of the primary freedoms that helps preserve and supports our free and flourishing democracy. Without it, government censorship and coercion become a reality for everyone.”
he court is scheduled to hear Lorie’s case this fall. A decision will come by next June. Meantime, lawyers prepare, countless people all over the country pray, and Lorie, encouraged by those prayers, shares her story in the public square. She knows she’s not alone — that more and more people of faith in many walks of life are coming, in these tumultuous days, to the same kind of line she has come to.
“The Lord is looking for His people to take a stand and speak up for what’s right in their own lives,” she says. “To stand in truth and to do it boldly. He blesses that.
“I’m not saying that He’s calling everybody to take a stand the way I have, but He’s called each of us to do something for His kingdom. I would just challenge everyone to think about what that is, and to do it — all in — not ashamed or fearful of what the world will do in response.”
Hear Lorie’s story in her own words