The lawyers for the Christian owners of a Minnesota video services company are firing back after a federal judge there called the couple’s efforts to limit their wedding work to heterosexual couples “akin to a ‘White Applicants Only’ sign.”
Carl and Angel Larsen operate Telescope Media, a video business that the Larsens want to include wedding videos. But they have a problem in the recently amended Minnesota Human Rights Act, which forbids businesses to treat people differently based upon “race, color, national origin, sex, disability (or) sexual orientation.”
Violation of the Human Rights Act could result in fines as high as $25,000 per violation.
The Larsens launched a pre-emptive lawsuit that was rejected last week by federal Judge John Tunheim, who wrote that the effort by the Larsens to film weddings but decline requests to video same-sex ceremonies was “akin to a ‘White Applicants Only’ sign.”
The Alliance Defending Freedom, or ADF, is representing the Larsens. Senior Counsel Jonathan Scruggs says Judge Tunheim’s rationale is way off base.
“That comparison is entirely false. The Larsens do not discriminate based off of any status. They are willing to serve all people, including people of all different sexual orientations. They just can’t promote messages they disagree with and events they disagree with. That’s a common sense distinction,” said Scruggs.
He says the judge’s disturbing language did not stop there.
“The court acknowledged that this law was raising first amendment concerns yet said that was only an “incidental burden” on the Larsens first amendment rights, when they are compelled to create and promote videos of a same-sex wedding ceremony,” said Scruggs.
“That is a direct assault on the first amendment. We’re hopeful that the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals, which is the appellate court, will be receptive of our arguments to protect the Larsens’ rights,” said Scruggs.
Scruggs says a bedrock American constitutional principle is at stake here.
“All Americans should have the right to choose what messages they promote or the messages they don’t promote. It is a great burden on our clients’ freedoms for the state to come in and say, ‘You’ve got to create from scratch a video that promotes and honors a same-sex wedding ceremony,” said Scruggs.
In just over two years since the U.S. Supreme Court ruled there was a constitutional right to same-sex marriage, Scruggs says states are clearly putting Christians on the defensive – in this case as well as the legal battles over bakers, florists, and other business owners often dealing with weddings.
“What you see in all these cases is states using these laws really to attack and restrict the rights of Christians to choose the messages they can and cannot promote,” said Scruggs.
“All these laws are telling people essentially to either toe the line or get out of the marketplace. Literally, Christians are being excluded from the marketplace because they can’t in good faith promote a message they disagree with,” said Scruggs.
He says that leaves Christians in a no-win situation.
“We represent people all over the country who are literally facing the choice of closing their business or giving up their religious beliefs about marriage,” said Scruggs.
As the legal battle proceeds, Scruggs says precedent is on the side of his clients.
“The Supreme Court had held that these public accommodation laws cannot compel speakers to voice messages they disagree with. It really runs right in line with that,” said Scruggs.
Among ADF’s clients is Jack Phillips, the owner of Masterpiece Cakeshop, who is at the center of oral arguments at the Supreme Court later this year. While Scruggs says all of these cases have different wrinkles, the precedent set in the Masterpiece case will have a huge impact on all the others.
“It is likely that whatever the Supreme Court rules in Masterpiece will have a large impact, even if it’s maybe not a decisive impact but a large impact, on how these cases [proceed]. There is a lot of attention on the Masterpiece ruling, and for good reason,” said Scruggs.
No date has been set for oral arguments in that case, but Scruggs suspects they will be scheduled for sometime in November.