The destination wedding website looks uncontroversial enough. The thumbnail preview of the site shows the happy couple’s names in teal and purple type, a mostly out-of-focus photo of a wedding dress trailing on a sandy beach and a couple’s bare feet, and a date and a location in Mexico.
In 2015, a web designer named Lorie Smith featured the wedding website in her portfolio of recent work—you can still access an archived copy of Smith’s site on the Wayback Machine. But you won’t find the wedding website in Smith’s live online portfolio anymore. The page detailing her role in the wedding website’s creation was removed some time before she filed a legal challenge—one that claimed she was unable to enter the wedding website business because Colorado’s anti-discrimination law would compel her to create same-sex wedding websites. The wedding website Smith made before she filed her case—and highlighted in a portfolio on her own site—is being reported for the first time in The New Republic.
In her suit against the state of Colorado, which spanned nearly seven years and made it all the way to the Supreme Court, Smith and her attorneys with the Christian nationalist law project Alliance Defending Freedom, or ADF, argued that she was barred from creating wedding websites due to the state’s anti-discrimination law. “Ms. Smith’s speech has been chilled,” one of her attorneys told the Supreme Court when it heard her case, 303 Creative v. Elenis, in December 2022. “For six years, she has been unable to speak in the marketplace.” On June 30, Smith prevailed, and the court’s decision was celebrated across conservative media and by anti-LGBTQ activists. Yet it appears—and not for the first time in this case—that a basic fact that was used to build a narrative of Smith’s victimhood was not adequately tested.
The discovery of the destination wedding website that Smith now confirms she created comes after The New Republic reported in June that a same-sex wedding website inquiry made to Smith and included in court documents in her case appeared to be fabricated. Smith’s case is part of ADF’s broader, longer-term project to roll back civil rights laws protecting LGBTQ people. In 303 Creative vs. Elenis, which the Supreme Court ruled for Smith late last month, the group claimed such laws harmed its client’s rights. This is a strategy ADF has used in prior cases, such as the 2018 Supreme Court case brought by a baker who refused to design a wedding cake for a gay couple.
As with the apparently falsified gay wedding website request, it is not clear if ADF knew about the wedding website Smith created while its lawyers were arguing the case. When the district court first heard Smith’s case, it raised questions about the website request—but the existence of the request was likely not going to be decisive in the ultimate outcome of the case. Still, ADF lawyers did use it to help bolster the argument that their client “faces real and imminent harm,” as ADF wrote in a brief to the Supreme Court, because “Lorie has already received a request to design a website celebrating a same-sex wedding, and if past is prologue, Colorado will sue her, even sans a complaint.” The existence of a wedding website made by Smith, however, strikes closer to the heart of the matter.
Legal historian Kate Redburn, who is currently a fellow and lecturer in law at Columbia Law School, was examining an archived version of Smith’s portfolio site when they made the discovery. “My current research is about the history of lawyering for the New Christian Right,” they told me. “So I’ve been thinking about the relationship between religious freedom and free speech, and what kinds of downstream effects we might expect from 303 being decided on free speech grounds.”
Going back through Smith’s portfolio as archived in the Wayback Machine, Redburn said, they were curious about how Smith described her business—which is how they found themselves staring at the wedding website thumbnail on a page advertising “Recent Website Projects” on an archived version of Smith’s website.
“I couldn’t believe it,” Redburn told me. “The idea that she hadn’t made any wedding websites for anyone was so baked into the narrative around this case.” Smith was repeatedly identified in both court opinions and in mainstream news accounts as someone who had not made wedding websites, who could not do so because of the law she sought to challenge.
Last week, I reached out several times to a Colorado woman whose name matched the name of the bride, by email and phone, to ask if Lorie Smith had designed a website for her wedding a few years ago. I got no response. (A person with the bride’s first name greets callers on the voicemail message.) Inquiries were also sent to Smith and to ADF. In a response sent to me last week by an ADF spokesperson, Smith acknowledged she had made the website as a gift for a family member and had subsequently removed it from her online portfolio before the lawsuit was filed. While ADF did not answer our questions about what knowledge its lawyers had of the website on Smith’s site, its official account did post a lengthy thread to Twitter last week, after I had sent the group my questions about the website.
“Lorie wanted to expand her portfolio to design for weddings,” the group posted, but added that “at no time did Lorie advertise or offer to create WEDDING WEBSITES for the general public—much less charge for doing so.” According to ADF, the destination wedding website is inconsequential to the argument its lawyers made to the courts because the website was a gift from Smith to the bride, included in her portfolio “to illustrate her design skills,” not a service she explicitly offered to others for a fee.
Yet the wedding website appeared on a page advertising Smith’s web design services, for anyone, and was undifferentiated from what Smith says is her commercial work. Whether or not Smith charged the bride for her services, the wedding website was, apparently for much of 2015, being used to advertise her services. A reasonable conclusion to draw is that designing wedding websites is one of them.
This late discovery comes in a case that has already raised many questions—including, after the Supreme Court handed down its decision for Smith in late June, widespread outrage at the idea that bringing a lawsuit against a hypothetical situation was now leading to a real-world rollback of rights. With the decision, the American public was introduced to just how far ADF will go in service of the Christian nationalist agenda.
“I think the public reaction we’re seeing is probably a mix of surprise, shock, and anger that this case seems to have been contrived, and probably also that such an important court ruling might well have been based on facts that were not entirely true,” said Jennifer Pizer, chief legal officer at Lambda Legal, who worked on Lambda’s brief in 303 Creative. “People seem to be expressing understandable distress at the idea that this impactful case was won by people who might have misled the court—it’s alarming for multiple reasons.”
Pizer has worked on numerous LGBTQ rights cases at the Supreme Court and in lower courts opposing ADF. “I think the bigger issue is that ADF has been gunning for this result—and not just this result, but has been gunning to win licenses to discriminate against LGBTQ+ people and ways to undermine civil rights laws more broadly for many years,” she said.
With Redburn’s discovery of the wedding site, as seen in Smith’s archived portfolio, the story of Lorie Smith and her wedding websites now takes another turn.
ADF’s narrative from the beginning of this case was that Smith was barred from engaging in “the design, creation, and publication of wedding websites.” If she had done so for heterosexual marriages, as ADF argued in its initial complaint, she “must also willingly design, create, and publish wedding websites celebrating and promoting same-sex marriages.” The complaint was filed in September 2016, at least a year after Smith advertised the destination wedding website on her online portfolio. ADF also argued that “solely because of Colorado law, Lorie and 303 Creative are refraining from expressing their views of God’s design for marriage.”
In another filing, “ADF suggested that Colorado put Smith in an impossible position,” Redburn explained. If Smith wanted to create and sell wedding websites, according to ADF’s logic, she had a few options. She could express what she believed by making wedding websites only for straight weddings and be penalized for violating civil rights law. She could express something that she didn’t believe—that same-sex weddings were legitimate—in order to adhere to the law. She could say nothing and not make wedding websites at all.
But the discovery of the destination wedding website “could seriously undermine that story by revealing a fourth option,” Redburn said. It is now clear that Smith had, in fact, built a wedding website and advertised that work on her own website without, it appears, any of the adverse consequences she and her attorneys said could follow.
“She claimed that she was ready to speak about marriage, but the government was getting in the way,” Redburn told me. “It looks like she did speak about marriage as she wished, and Colorado didn’t try to stop her.”
Each of the courts that heard this case and Smith’s story—the district court, the Tenth Circuit, and the Supreme Court—had to come to a decision based on what might happen if Smith “spoke” about marriage or, put more plainly, if she refused to offer her services for same-sex weddings. Smith allegedly not having made a wedding website was part of the narrative at three levels of the federal judiciary and was considered significant enough to mention in their opinions.
The district court, where Smith’s case was first heard, described her business like this: “Although 303 does not currently do so, Ms. Smith intends to expand its services by offering to build websites for couples who plan to marry.” The court ultimately decided against her. A dissent from the Tenth Circuit opinion also noted that Smith and 303 Creative “do not yet offer wedding-related services but intend to do so in the future”; this detail also made it into Justice Gorsuch’s majority opinion on the case. In reference to an argument made by the defense, a dissent to the Tenth Circuit opinion concluded, “We find nothing ‘imaginary or speculative’ about [Smith and 303 Creative’s] apprehensions that they may violate [CADA, the Colorado anti-discrimination law] if they offer wedding-based services in the manner that they intend.”
Unlike that same-sex wedding inquiry, here is a fact concerning something that did happen—Smith made a wedding website. It is not clear if Smith’s attorneys or the attorneys in the Colorado Attorney General’s office representing the defendants had investigated this part of Smith’s claims about her business. Her claims appear to have been taken as fact from the beginning, even as the archive of Smith’s portfolio website was available and freely accessible from the start of the case. ADF’s argument, which it laid out in its Twitter thread last week—that the wedding website Smith made was a gift with no bearing on the case—was never argued in court.
The wedding site and the same-sex website inquiry pose different but intertwined questions about how ADF went about creating a narrative of victimhood around Lorie Smith (something the organization continues to do, characterizing this reporting on the case as a “targeted campaign against Lorie”). For the public, as expressed in media accounts of the case, Smith was a Christian woman who feared the state would penalize her should she sell wedding websites—which she had yet to do. This isn’t to say Smith or ADF manipulated their stories; in fact, if ADF had shared what had happened with Smith’s first wedding website, it may have strengthened her case.
“In December 2015, Lorie contacted [ADF], who confirmed her fears that she would be at risk of Colorado punishing and prosecuting her if she began creating custom wedding websites celebrating God’s design for marriage and selling them to the public,” ADF said on Twitter. “After learning she was being censored, she was afraid of how CO might harass her. Even though CO’s law didn’t apply to the site she’d created as a gift, free of charge for her sister, she chose to take it down bc of CO’s hostile environment for artists.” ADF is now saying that Smith took the wedding website down because she feared the law, which could be a stronger argument for her speech being chilled. So why not share it from the start?
Because Smith had no live wedding website to reference throughout her case, ADF instead showed the court mock-ups of the kinds of wedding websites Smith said she intended to make for sale. This is why, during oral arguments in the case in December 2022, Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan had only Smith’s hypothetical websites, with pages headed with phrases like “Our Special Day” and “Funny Dating Story” featuring fake couples, as the basis for their questions to the ADF lawyers as they tried to understand what injury, if any, Smith may face if she made a wedding website.
Would it not have been easier for Alliance Defending Freedom to point to the destination wedding site their client had already made?