MINNEAPOLIS – A three-judge federal appeals court ruled Friday to revive the challenge of a St. Cloud couple suing Minnesota over the right to refuse to film same-sex weddings, arguing that the videos are a form of speech subject to First Amendment protections.
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.
Writing for the appeals court on Friday, Judge David Stras, a former Minnesota Supreme Court justice, wrote that the First Amendment allows the Larsens to choose when to speak and what to say.
Stras wrote that the wedding videos involve editorial judgment and control and “constituted a media for the communication of ideas.”
In a statement Friday, Carl Larsen insisted that he and his wife “serve everyone. We just can’t produce films promoting every message.”
“We are thankful the court recognized that government officials can’t force religious believers to violate their beliefs to pursue their passion,” Larsen said. “This is a win for everyone, regardless of your beliefs.”
Minnesota Human Rights Commissioner Rebecca Lucero and Attorney General Keith Ellison, whose office is defending the state in the lawsuit, were not immediately available for comment.
The decision reversed a 2017 ruling by Chief U.S. District Judge John Tunheim, who dismissed their lawsuit. The Larsens appealed their case with the backing of attorneys for the Alliance Defending Freedom, a national conservative Christian legal group. Their appeal before the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in St. Paul was heard last October, months after the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in favor of a Colorado baker who also refused to serve gay couples.
The appeals court decision sends the Larsens’ case back to the district court to decide whether the couple is entitled to a preliminary ruling that would let them operate their business without fear of being found in violation of Minnesota’s Human Rights Act.
Stras wrote that the state law is subject to strict scrutiny because it “compels the Larsens to speak favorably of same-sex marriage if they speak favorably of opposite-sex marriage.”
Anti-discrimination law serves an important government interest, Stras wrote, but the law may not compel speech to serve as a public accommodation for others.
In a dissenting opinion, Judge Jane Kelly disagreed with the court’s ruling that the couple would likely prevail on arguments tied to the First Amendment’s protections for free speech and free exercise of religion.
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