A St. Cloud husband-and-wife film company is challenging the constitutionality of Minnesota’s human rights act, arguing that they will be punished for refusing wedding services to same-sex couples.
In one of the first challenges since same-sex marriage became legal in Minnesota in 2013, Carl and Angel Larsen’s Telescope Media Group filed suit Tuesday in federal court against the state’s commissioner of human rights and attorney general.
The complaint describes the Larsens as “Bible-believing Christians” who “believe that many see marriage as a punch line for jokes, a means for personal gratification, an arrangement of convenience, or a method of achieving social status.”
Their suit has the backing of a large Christian legal nonprofit, the Alliance Defending Freedom, which is at the center of worldwide battles over transgender bathroom policies, marriage equality and contraception.
The Larsens, who started their company in 2008, did not return messages seeking comment on Tuesday.
Their lawsuit says the Larsens are trying to break into the wedding industry, but want to shoot weddings only for heterosexual couples. The Larsens want to advertise at wedding expos and on websites but Minnesota’s current law, they say, would force them into producing videos “promoting a conception of marriage that directly contradicts their religious beliefs.” They argue that their right to expression is being “chilled and silenced” by the state.
Human Rights Commissioner Kevin Lindsey said he anticipates the department will prevail in court and “that sexual orientation will remain protected” under the act.
“This lawsuit is part of a pattern of nationwide litigation that is now aimed at eroding the rights of LGBTQ Minnesotans,” Lindsey said in a statement Tuesday.
A Minnesota attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union also challenged the premise of the lawsuit, saying personal religious beliefs do not allow businesses to discriminate among customers.
“This could open a real wide door to people citing religion in turning away customers they don’t like,” said Teresa Nelson, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Minnesota. “It opens the door to a vast array of discrimination … if the court sides with the plaintiffs.”
Gov. Mark Dayton signed a bill legalizing same-sex marriage in Minnesota in 2013, and the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2015 that there is a fundamental right to marriage guaranteed to all.
Minnesota’s law doesn’t compel religious organizations to perform same-sex marriages. But it does outlaw denying wedding services like cake decorating, wedding planning or other commercial services by “individuals, nonprofits or the secular business activities of religious entities.”
‘Can’t pick and choose’
The Alliance Defending Freedom, a $40 million Arizona nonprofit involved in Christian religious freedom and “sanctity of life” litigation around the world, is supporting the Larsens’ suit. The alliance was part of the successful Hobby Lobby case that argued before the U.S. Supreme Court that businesses could refuse contraceptive coverage to employees for religious reasons.
“This is a right everybody has, not just a right in the realm of marriage,” said Jeremy Tedesco, senior counsel for the organization. “We wouldn’t want a Democratic speechwriter being made to write speeches for Trump under force of law or an atheist singer forced to sing Christian hymns at a church. These are choices creative professionals can make. The worry is if the government can take it away from people like the Larsens, what’s to stop it from taking away from everyone else?”
The Larsens are suing Lindsey and Attorney General Lori Swanson and seek both a preliminary and permanent injunctive relief to halt enforcement of the law as applied to their business. They also want a declaration that the Minnesota law is unconstitutional and say they should be compensated for legal costs.
The couple, according to their complaint, believe in working with all people regardless of race, gender, or sexual orientation, but want to use their business to promote messages consistent with their religious views. They say it is standard for production companies to decline to produce videos promoting messages the companies’ owners don’t want to support.
In addition to same-sex marriage, other topics the Larsens say they would decline to convey include sexual immorality, the “destruction of unborn children,” racism or racial division, inciting violence or degrading women.
If successful, the Larsens would publish a disclaimer on their website that Telescope cannot make films celebrating same-sex marriages. They say they already must turn away other business because they receive more requests than they can handle, and that other video production businesses are widely available in Minnesota. They also noted that other video businesses are permitted to advertise that they celebrate same-sex marriage. But Nelson said those businesses are advertising that their services are available to everyone and not just a select few.
“They can’t pick and choose who they provide their services to,” Nelson said.
Fines and jail time
In October, the ACLU’s Minnesota branch intervened to represent a transgender student in a federal lawsuit filed in September over a Virginia, Minn., school district’s restroom and locker room policy. Renee Carlson, the Larsens’ attorney, and six Alliance Defending Freedom attorneys also represent the group created by Virginia parents and students to sue the district. A federal judge this week suspended proceedings in the case until the U.S. Supreme Court issues an opinion or otherwise resolves a similar case being argued in Washington.
The Alliance Defending Freedom is led by Alan Sears, a former Department of Justice official in the Ronald Reagan administration who co-wrote “The Homosexual Agenda: Exposing the Principal Threat to Religious Freedom Today.”
The Larsens’ suit doesn’t respond to specific allegations but instead seeks to guard against future penalties. State officials can deploy “testers” to pose as potential customers to investigate discrimination complaints, a tactic that led to a 2014 settlement with a Little Falls venue accused of refusing to host a same-sex wedding. Business owners determined liable for discrimination can also be found guilty of a misdemeanor offense punishable by fines and up to 90 days in jail.
Tedesco said “any reasonable person” staring down that possibility would follow in the Larsens’ footsteps.