Minnesota Christian Couple Gets a Victory for Religious Liberty

Judge David Stras, a Trump appointee, wrote for the 2-1 majority opinion, where he noted that Minnesota can’t force “free and independent individuals to endorse ideas they find objectionable.”

Alliance Defending Freedom

Carl and Angel Larsen are a St. Cloud, Minnesota couple who run a media business called Telescope Media Group. They are devout Christians, and they’ve already made films and promotional videos with an overtly Christian bent. Several years ago, they hoped to enter the wedding-video business. 

But Minnesota law that bars discrimination—the Minnesota Human Rights Act (MHRA)—is being interpreted by current Democratic state officials, as a state website declares, to “not exempt individuals, businesses, nonprofits, or the secular business activities of religious entities from non-discrimination laws based on religious beliefs regarding same-sex marriage.”

In other words, any person engaged in a business that serves weddings can be forced to participate in a same-sex wedding. And Minnesota law threatens up to 90 days in jail for violating these guidelines.

Minnesotans’ tax dollars have even employed “testers” to target “noncompliant” businesses, and Minnesota has already pursued action against a wedding vendor who refused to rent the venue for a same-sex wedding. 

The case

The Larsens sued in 2016, to maintain the right to not shoot video of gay weddings. They said that they would gladly work with all people, regardless of race, religion, or sexual orientation. They also have done business with gay people. They only seek the right to not have to offer their services to a gay wedding.

The state of Minnesota argued back that Telescope Media Group was a public accommodation performing a “commercial activity.” In other words, the ability to engage in commerce is not a right but a privilege, subject to approval by the state government. According to Minnesota, the state’s total regulatory power also allowed it to overrule the Larsens’ editorial decisions. Minnesota argued that even if the Larsens shot both same-sex and opposite-sex weddings, the videos had to depict both in the same “positive” light, or risk running afoul of the law. 

U.S. District Judge John Tunheim—a Bill Clinton appointee—sided with the state and dismissed the Larsens’ lawsuit in September 2017. Tunheim said that the Larsens had no standing, a legal test that decides whether a party can bring a case, because they had not yet gotten into the wedding business and been severely penalized.

The 8th Circuit Court of Appeals disagreed, rightfully finding that the Larsens didn’t have to get thrown in jail before they had a case. 

Judge David Stras, a Trump appointee, wrote for the 2-1 majority opinion, where he noted that Minnesota can’t force “free and independent individuals to endorse ideas they find objectionable.” That’s because the 1st Amendment right to Freedom of Speech, which applies to the states via the 14th Amendment, prevents the government from “compelling” speech. 

Stras also shot down Minnesota’s argument: at the core of its argument, Minnesota is saying that making a video is conduct, not speech, so it isn’t subject to the same legal test as speech would be. But that’s a slippery slope that could label all sorts of things—printing a newspaper, making artwork, or marching in a parade—as “conduct.” 

“Speech is not conduct just because the government says it is,” Stras quipped. 

The 8th Circuit decision follows the U.S. Supreme Court decision, Masterpiece Cakeshop vs. Colorado Civil Rights Commission, where the Court found that Christian cakemaker Jack Phillips was wrongfully treated by Colorado’s bureaucrats.

But the Court in Masterpiece sidestepped Phillips’ free speech claim, instead holding that the Colorado Civil Rights Commission erred because it was so openly hostile to Mr. Phillips’ religious beliefs. True, but there’s still no ruling on whether a state can force someone religiously opposed to same-sex marriage to participate in a same-sex wedding. As a result, since the Masterpiece decision, leftwing “activists” have bombarded Phillips with obscene cake requests, including a request that a cake picturing Satan performing a sex act be made—all an attempt to trigger further lawsuits and legal charges for Phillips

The left reacts

The left reacted predictably, by obfuscating the fact that the Larsens don’t want to discriminate against gay people, they just want to not have to service gay weddings.

Leftwing Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison promised to fight back, and the Star Tribune called it a “bid to deny wedding videography to gay couples.”

But Pete Kotz, editor of the far-left City Pages, took the cake. 

Kotz wrote: “The word “command” doesn’t imply much wiggle rooms [sic]. But some Christians take the “love thy neighbor” portion of the 10 Commandments rather loosely. Count Carl and Angel Larsen among them.”

First off, “love thy neighbor” isn’t in the 10 Commandments. But the snarky Kotz continues:

“At issue is the state’s Human Rights Act. The law offers no exemptions in cases like these, since religious supremacy has been the principle culprit behind much of Minnesota’s darker past. It’s been used to discriminate against Jews, Catholics, Muslims and others, not to mention all manner of ethnicities. It was a staple of the Old South, invoked by Protestants to deem blacks inferior… Yet the Larsens want to relive this grand tradition, believing gay couples inferior. So they sued in 2016 for the right to reject gay weddings.”

But Kotz keeps digging: 

“as Donald Trump’s appointees begin to fill the federal bench, religious supremacy is returning to fashion. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of a Colorado baker who also wished to reject service to gay couples. Since baking is an inherently creative act, the court said, serving people one finds repulsive violates free expression… It appears the Old South is coming back to life.”

First off, Jack Phillips—the Colorado baker—didn’t refuse to serve gay people. He only refused to make a gay wedding cake. Second, Kotz is historically illiterate. Many Christians fought vehemently against slavery. For example, it was evangelicals in Britain who worked successfully to ban the transatlantic slave trade. Plus, connecting a wish to not shoot video for gay weddings to the systemic abuse, lynching, and denial of basic human rights to black Americans in the “Old South” is insulting to both the victims of racism, and to everyone’s intelligence.

Can the left win this issue without lying about it? Absolutely not. That’s a good sign for those who love all people, but also believe in Free Speech and the Free Exercise of Religion.


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Willis Krumholz

Willis L. Krumholz is a fellow at Defense Priorities. He holds a JD and MBA degree from the University of St. Thomas, and works in the financial services industry. The views expressed are those of the author only. You can follow Willis on Twitter @WillKrumholz.