The Story: A recent federal appeals court ruling is a significant victory for free speech and religious freedom.
The Background: Carl and Angel Larsen are professional storytellers who use film and their artistic abilities to help their clients tell their own stories. The Larsens wanted to bring their talents to the wedding industry and use their gifts to promote their religious beliefs about marriage—but Minnesota’s government refused to let them to do so.
According to state officials, a Minnesota law mandates that if the Larsens tell stories that are consistent with their beliefs about marriage (i.e., that marriage is between a man and a woman), then they must tell marriage stories that violate their beliefs as well (e.g., that same-sex couples can be legitimately married). If they decline to do so, the Larsens would face steep fines and even up to 90 days in jail.
The couple has challenged the law in federal court, but their case—Telescope Media Group v. Lindsey—was initially dismissed.
Late last month the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that a lower court should not have dismissed the lawsuit. The court reinstated the free speech and free exercise of religion claims of the lawsuit, and ordered the district court to consider whether the Larsens are entitled to a preliminary injunction barring enforcement of the law against them.
Why It Matters: Can Minnesota require Christians like the Larsens to produce videos of same-sex weddings, even if the message would conflict with their own beliefs? “The district court concluded that it could and dismissed the Larsens’ constitutional challenge to Minnesota’s antidiscrimination law,” the Eighth Circuit Court said. “Because the First Amendment allows the Larsens to choose when to speak and what to say, we reverse the dismissal of two of their claims and remand with instructions to consider whether they are entitled to a preliminary injunction.”
As the court opinion notes, the Larsens “gladly work with all people—regardless of their race, sexual orientation, sex, religious beliefs, or any other classification.” But because they “are Christians who believe that God has called them to use their talents and their company to . . . honor God,” the Larsens decline any requests for their services that conflict with their religious beliefs. This includes any that, in their view, “contradict biblical truth; promote sexual immorality; support the destruction of unborn children; promote racism or racial division; incite violence; degrade women; or promote any conception of marriage other than as a lifelong institution between one man and one woman.”
But according to the Minnesota Human Rights Act (MHRA), a decision to produce anywedding videos requires the Larsens to make them for everyone, regardless of the Larsens’ beliefs and the message they wish to convey. The MHRA also mandates that wedding videos must depict same- and opposite-sex weddings in an equally “positive” light.
The appeals court correctly pointed out that the Larsens’ videos are a form of speech and are thus entitled to First Amendment protection. The court also clarified that “regulating speech because it is discriminatory or offensive is not a compelling state interest, however hurtful the speech may be.” The effect of the Minnesota law would also have broad effects on other forms of speech and conduct, the court says:
Indeed, if Minnesota were correct, there is no reason it would have to stop with the Larsens. In theory, it could use the [Minnesota Human Rights Act] to require a Muslim tattoo artist to inscribe “My religion is the only true religion” on the body of a Christian if he or she would do the same for a fellow Muslim, or it could demand that an atheist musician perform at an evangelical church service. In fact, if Minnesota were to do what other jurisdictions have done and declare political affiliation or ideology to be a protected characteristic, then it could force a Democratic speechwriter to provide the same services to a Republican, or it could require a professional entertainer to perform at rallies for both the Republican and Democratic candidates for the same office.
“This is a significant win,” Alliance Defending Freedom senior counsel Jeremy Tedesco said, who argued the case before the Eighth Circuit in October 2018. “The government shouldn’t threaten filmmakers with fines and jail time to force them to create films that violate their beliefs.”
The Larsens are also pleased to hear they won’t be forced to make films that express messages in conflict with their core beliefs. “Angel and I serve everyone. We just can’t produce films promoting every message,” Carl Larsen said following the court’s decision. “We are thankful the court recognized that government officials can’t force religious believers to violate their beliefs to pursue their passion. This is a win for everyone, regardless of your beliefs.”