Last week, the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in favor of religious freedom and free speech. Their ruling placed a limit on a state’s nondiscrimination law and protected a Christian couple from having to decide between their business or their religious conscience.
Carl and Angel Larsen, the plaintiffs in the case, are a Christian couple who own Telescope Media Group, a video and film production company. As storytellers, they want to use wedding videography to celebrate the goodness of marriage between a man and a woman.
Minnesota’s Human Rights Act, according to Minnesota officials, mandates that the Larsens must make videos for same-sex weddings if they do wedding videography.
The penalties for violating the law are a civil penalty to the state, triple compensatory damages, punitive damages up to $25,000, and possible incarceration up to 90 days in jail.
Creating videos for same-sex weddings would violate the Larsens’ religious conscience. Minnesota’s law would compel them to share a message that contradicts what they want to express.
They could not comply with Minnesota’s law. The Larsens also did not want to face an investigation and potential punishment. Instead, they have not made their wedding videography services public. Two years ago, they filed a pre-enforcement challenge in court.
The 8th Circuit Court of Appeals last week reinstated their challenge that was dismissed by a lower court. They also ruled that Minnesota can’t force the Larsens’ to express messages through their films that violate their religious convictions.
Judge David Stras, writing the majority opinion, said that any wedding video created by the Larsens is a “form of speech that is entitled to First Amendment protection.”
He noted that the Larsens “intend to shoot, assemble, and edit the videos with the goal of expressing their own views about the sanctity of marriage.”
“It also does not make any difference that the Larsens are expressing their views through a for-profit enterprise,” Stras added.
Minnesota argued that that it would regulate the Larsens’ conduct, not their speech.
“If we were to accept Minnesota’s invitation to evaluate each of the Larsens’ acts individually, then wide swaths of protected speech would be subject to regulation by the government,” Stras countered.
Stras points out that Minnesota’s Human Rights Act does not trump the Constitution.
“Even antidiscrimination laws, as critically important as they are, must yield to the Constitution. And as compelling as the interest in preventing discriminatory conduct may be, speech is treated differently under the First Amendment,” he wrote.
Stras pointed out how Minnesota’s application of the law could have a wide-reaching impact. “In theory, it could use the MHRA 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,” he wrote.
The 8th Circuit Court also ruled that the Larsens could seek relief based on their free exercise claim since it was “intertwined” with their free speech claim.
“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.”
“This is a significant win. The government shouldn’t threaten filmmakers with fines and jail time to force them to create films that violate their beliefs,” Jeremy Tedesco, a senior counsel with Alliance Defending Freedom who represented the Larsens, said. “Carl and Angel work with all people; they just don’t create films promoting all messages. That’s why we’re pleased that the 8th Circuit has affirmed that the Larsens’ films are fully protected speech and that the state lacks a compelling interest to force them to express messages through their films that violate their deeply held convictions. All creative professionals should be free to create art consistent with their convictions without the threat of government punishment.”