A Minnesota couple claims that forcing them to film videos of same-sex weddings violates their constitutional right to religious freedom.
On Tuesday, the U.S. Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals heard arguments in a case brought on behalf of Carl and Angel Larsen, who sued to overturn the state’s nondiscrimination laws in 2016. The Larsens, who run a Christian videography business, say they could face fines or jail time under the Minnesota Human Rights Act if they refuse service to LGBTQ couples who ask them to film their wedding.
“The Larsens would violate their religious beliefs about marriage by using their media production and filmmaking talents to produce a video promoting or communicating the idea that marriage can exist between anyone but one man and one woman,” claimed an earlier lawsuit filed by the Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF).
“But Minnesota law forces the Larsens to produce videos promoting a conception of marriage that directly contradicts their religious beliefs if they produce videos promoting marriages between one man and one woman,” the suit added.
The U.S. District Court of Minnesota initially dismissed the case last year.
In an impassioned critique, Chief U.S. District Judge John Tunheim claimed the Larsens’ desire to post a notice on their company’s webpage saying they don’t do business with gay couples is “akin to a ‘White Applicants Only’ sign.”
“Posting language on a website telling potential customers that a business will discriminate based on sexual orientation is part of the act of sexual orientation discrimination itself,” Tunheim wrote. “As conduct carried out through language, this act is not protected by the First Amendment.”
The ADF, though, has held that any comparison between LGBTQ equality and the civil rights of racial minorities is “absurd.”
During debate before the Eighth Circuit on Tuesday, ADF attorney Jeremy Tedesco cited the Supreme Court’s recent ruling in Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission as proof. He said the 2018 ruling illustrated that states “sometimes go too far to force people to express messages about marriage that violate their beliefs.”
But attorneys representing the state claimed the 7-2 decision actually upholds laws like Minnesota Human Rights Act.
Alethea Huyser, assistant solicitor general for the Minnesota Attorney General’s office, claimed Justice Anthony Kennedy’s opinion “recognized states’ authority to enforce anti-discrimination laws,” as the Minneapolis Star-Tribune originally reported.
In that case, Colorado baker Jack Phillips made a similar argument to what the Larsens are arguing in court. Phillips, owner of Masterpiece Cakeshop in Lakewood, claimed the state violated his constitutional rights after it fined him for refusing to bake a cake for Charlie Craig and David Mullins’ 2012 wedding.
The ADF, which also argued that case, held that wedding cakes are a form of artistic expression and should be protected under the First Amendment.
The Larsens also believe wedding videos fall under the umbrella of art.
“State officials say that if we express stories consistent with our belief about marriage, they’ll force us to tell stories about marriage that violate those beliefs under threat of steep fines and even going to jail,” Carl Larsen told reporters gathered outside the St. Paul courthouse yesterday.
Larsen, who lives in St. Cloud with his wife, claimed that each of the stories that the couple tells “magnifies Jesus like a telescope.”
That’s why their company is called Telescope Media Group, he added.
Although their attorneys argued that Minnesota’s Human Rights Act treats freedom of expression “as a public accommodation,” Minnesota Human Rights Commissioner Kevin Lindsey told members of the media that the real debate is not one over art or speech. It’s about conduct.
“Conduct matters,” he claimed, “[…] When you are selling goods and services, you should sell goods and services to all people in the state of Minnesota.”
Lindsey believes Judges Jane Kelly, Bobby Shepherd, and David Stras, who made up the three-member panel from the Eighth Circuit, will ultimately side with the state of Minnesota. Although a verdict isn’t expected for some months, the case could end up decided by the U.S. Supreme Court — which punted on many of the key issues at the center of the Masterpiece case.
It’s unclear on how a Supreme Court with Brett Kavanaugh, the conservative judge recently confirmed to replace Kennedy, would rule on matters of “religious freedom.” Kavanaugh had little chance to weigh in on LGBTQ rights during his time as a D.C. circuit court judge.
The Larsens, though, maintain that a favorable ruling on their case from either SCOTUS or the Eighth Circuit would benefit everyone.
“If we win, everyone wins,” Carl Larsen told press. “The ability to live and work according to your convictions without fear of government punishment is a freedom everyone should be able to enjoy.”
Image via Alliance Defending Freedom