A St. Cloud couple’s legal effort to refuse to film same-sex weddings made its way before a federal appellate panel Tuesday, in a case seen as an important potential sequel to the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent decision in favor of a Colorado baker who also refused to serve gay couples.
Carl and Angel Larsen, who run a Christian videography business called Telescope Media Group, sued Minnesota’s human rights commissioner in December 2016 in federal court, saying the state’s public accommodation law would hit them with steep fines and jail time if they began offering wedding videography services that only promoted their vision of marriage.
Chief U.S. District Judge John Tunheim dismissed their lawsuit in September 2017. In his ruling, he called the Larsens’ plan to post a notice on their website that they would deny services to same-sex couples “conduct akin to a ‘White Applicants Only’ sign,” and that it would be an act of discrimination not protected by the First Amendment.
With the backing of attorneys for the Alliance Defending Freedom, a national conservative Christian legal group, the Larsens appealed to the Eighth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, where an attorney for the couple and from the state Attorney General’s Office argued before a three-judge panel and a crowd of onlookers that spilled into the hallway on Tuesday in St. Paul.
Speaking to reporters afterward outside the courthouse, Minnesota Human Rights Commissioner Kevin Lindsey said the state outlaws the act of denying services based on discrimination and not the content of Larsens’ speech — an argument the state leaned on throughout Tuesday’s hearing. Lindsey also linked the act of singling out same-sex couples for denial of service to the outlawing of interracial marriage decades ago.
“In this case we are talking about two individuals who love each other and may wish to get married, and if those individuals face the same type of discrimination that those interracial couples did in the 1950s or ’60s, isn’t that a compelling interest of the state?” Lindsey said. “For us it is truly about conduct. Everyone should have the right to be protected under the law when they buy goods and services.”
Jeremy Tedesco, an attorney representing the Larsens, later called such a comparison “absurd” and pointed to a line in the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2015 decision recognizing same-sex marriage that said those with beliefs like the Larsens’ arrived at that point “based on decent and honorable convictions.”
A more recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling in favor of a Colorado baker who refused to produce a wedding cake for a same-sex couple loomed large over Tuesday’s arguments, with both sides using the decision to bolster their case. The three judges openly searched for any guidance that could be gleaned from the court’s June majority opinion.
Yet while that opinion found the Colorado Civil Rights Commission acted hostile toward the baker for his religious beliefs, it still left open the broader question of when those beliefs must yield to “otherwise valid exercise of state power” to enforce anti-discrimination laws.
Alethea Huyser, an attorney for the state, said that the U.S. Supreme Court, in the Masterpiece Cakeshop case, recognized states’ authority to enforce anti-discrimination laws. Huyser argued, in an earlier brief to the court, that the Supreme Court held that religious and philosophical objections do not allow business owners to deny equal access to goods and services under “a neutral and generally applicable public accommodations law.”
Tedesco on Tuesday countered that the Masterpiece case also recognized that laws like Minnesota’s “sometimes go too far to force people to express messages about marriage that violate their beliefs.”
Judges Jane Kelly, Bobby E. Shepherd and David R. Stras listened to Tuesday’s arguments and could issue a decision on whether to affirm Tunheim’s dismissal within two to three months, attorneys for both sides said.
Early during Tuesday’s arguments, Stras pressed Tedesco on whether the Larsens actually made a clear distinction between refusing to produce a message that they opposed and declining service to a class of people. Tedesco replied that, under Minnesota law, “speech itself is being treated as a public accommodation.”
“This case is a case that squarely presents the question that has been bedeviling courts and governments about how far can the government go when it comes to marriage,” Tedesco later told reporters. “Can they force people to promote ideas about marriage that violate their beliefs?”
The Alliance Defending Freedom also represented Jack Phillips, the Colorado baker behind Masterpiece Cakeshop. Doug Wardlow, Republican candidate for attorney general, worked for the legal nonprofit until recently. A spokesman for U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison, Wardlow’s Democratic opponent, on Tuesday pointed to Wardlow’s ties to the group as part of his “long history of defending discrimination.” A Wardlow spokesman countered that Ellison’s campaign was “desperate to talk about anything other than the credible domestic violence allegations that have been made against him.”
In St. Paul on Tuesday, a group of several dozen supporters, including young children holding signs that read “Minnesota Stop Compelling Speech,” gathered outside the courthouse after the hearing as Tedesco and Carl Larsen spoke to reporters. Larsen described inviting people from all backgrounds into the family’s home and said thousands of visitors’ names are etched on a 12-foot long table he called the centerpiece of the family’s household.
Larsen said he and his wife have worked “with many LGBT people on our film projects. We benefit from their creativity, their friendship and their business.”
“Our ability to laugh, dialogue and work together gives us great hope that our nation can transcend political and cultural disagreements that so easily fracture our communities,” he said. “But the Minnesota government is attempting to destroy that hope.”