Attorney General Keith Ellison is right: Everyone deserves to live with "dignity and respect" ("We will prove discrimination is not free speech," Oct. 3). Yet he's fighting hard to exempt Carl and Angel Larsen, and anyone else who disagrees with the government, from that rule.
If only everyone could get to know this St. Cloud couple. They regularly welcome people into their home and lives who don't share their culture, ethnicity, or deep religious convictions. They host strangers for coffee, invite people without plans for the holidays, and often fill the open seats at their 12-foot-long dinner table with people they met just yesterday. The Larsens ask every visitor to sign their name on the bottom of that table so they are never forgotten. In just seven years, well over 1,000 people have signed their names. It's the centerpiece of their home — a place where everyone experiences real hospitality.
The same faith that motivates their home life impacts their business too. Carl and Angel are professional storytellers who own a video production company called Telescope Media Group. As Christians, they want every story they tell to honor God. They gladly create films for everyone. But like most other filmmakers, the Larsens cannot create films that express every message.
Unfortunately, as they planned their expansion into wedding films, they learned that if they entered the industry, Minnesota officials would require them to create films that celebrate a view of marriage that violates their beliefs, under threat of steep fines and even 90 days in jail. Rather than staying silent or risking jail time, the Larsens filed a lawsuit to pre-emptively protect their free speech rights.
A little over a month ago, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 8th Circuit ruled that state officials could not use the Minnesota Human Rights Act to force the Larsens to create wedding films that violate their religious beliefs. The court said that the "First Amendment allows the Larsens to choose when to speak and what to say." It also stressed that government-coerced speech harms human dignity because it "is always demeaning."
State officials say they are firmly convinced that decision was wrong. Yet they retreated to the district court instead of appealing to the full 8th Circuit or the U.S. Supreme Court. Why?
Ellison rightly identifies the state's predicament. It is "not likely to win" at the high court. But not for the reasons he suggests.
First, Ellison faults the "current makeup" of the Supreme Court for the state's gloomy appeal forecast. That statement betrays a sadly partisan view of the Supreme Court. The First Amendment's protections do not depend on the outcome of elections or the presumed political persuasions of jurists.
Proving this, several of the Supreme Court wins of Alliance Defending Freedom (the firm representing Carl and Angel) over the last eight years were decided by large majorities, in which justices appointed by both parties sided with ADF's arguments — and during a time where some would say the "makeup" of the court was less favorable to their arguments.
Second, Ellison claims the Larsens' filmmaking process is a "fairy tale" because they describe the "creative control" they exercise over the content of their films. But all filmmakers make numerous creative decisions about the films they produce, which together determine the film's message. The Larsens have been in this business for years. Telescope Media Group is a serious and successful video production company that puts food on their table. It's not some flight of fancy.
What's not a fairy tale is the Larsens' fear about entering the wedding industry when the state has repeatedly said they would risk 90 days in jail if they followed their conscience and declined to promote same-sex weddings.
Would you exercise your freedoms protected by the First Amendment if you knew doing so would expose you to 90 days in jail?
The state is desperately defending its asserted power to banish people from the marketplace simply for disagreeing with the government. But the First Amendment forbids that power.
The 8th Circuit's reaffirmation of this foundational free-speech principle is welcome considering the times in which we live. Our politics are increasingly polarized, reasoned debate is being replaced with the demonization of ideological opponents, open discourse about important issues is disappearing, and significant efforts are underway to marginalize and silence those deemed to have disagreeable views. During such times, the last thing we should do is give the government new power to squelch speech and mandate uniformity of thought on contentious social, moral and political issues. If the state has the power to banish the Larsens from the public square for their beliefs, it has that power over all of us.
We should all hope that whatever court ultimately decides the Larsens' case will once again reaffirm that the government has no power to force its citizens to promote ideas that violate their deepest convictions, and give the Larsens' and all of us a well-deserved "fairy-tale" ending.
Jeremy Tedesco is vice president of U.S. advocacy, U.S. Legal Division, for Alliance Defending Freedom (@AllianceDefends). He argued before the 8th Circuit on behalf of Telescope Media Group.