Minn. filmmakers: We can't promote 'every message'

Angel and Carl Larsen
Photo from ADF
ST. LOUIS (BP) -- A federal appeals court has delivered a victory to Minnesota filmmakers who refuse to create videos of same-sex weddings because they believe marriage is limited to a man and a woman.

A panel of the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals in St. Louis ruled in a 2-1 opinion a federal court wrongly dismissed Carl and Angel Larsen's free-speech and free-exercise-of-religion claims. It also ordered the judge to reconsider the Larsens' request for a preliminary injunction blocking enforcement of the Minnesota Human Rights Act (MHRA) while their court case continues.

The opinion is the latest in the ongoing, legal showdown between religious liberty and sexual liberty. State laws and court rulings have brought intense pressure on Christians and other people of faith who believe marriage is only between a man and a woman. This has been especially true in the wedding business, where florists, cake designers, photographers, videographers and others have been penalized for declining to use their talents for same-sex weddings.

Southern Baptist religious freedom advocate Russell Moore said the decision "is a win for all Americans, not just for those of us who agree with the Larsens on marriage."

"At stake in these debates is the question of whether the state can force a person to violate his or her conscience," said Moore, president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, in written comments for Baptist Press. "We need to live in the kind of country where we can be free to seek to persuade one another, not bully each other into silence.

"The judiciary's responsibility is to protect Americans from governments and agencies that would make such a demand," he said. "I'm glad to see in this case that it has. My hope is that this case, like Masterpiece Cakeshop before it, is a sign that the courts will continue to uphold conscience freedom and personal soul liberty."

In a 2018 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled the Colorado Civil Rights Commission violated the religious free exercise clause of the First Amendment and demonstrated in its action "religious hostility" toward Masterpiece Cakeshop owner Jack Phillips, a Christian who had declined to design and decorate a cake in celebration of the wedding of two men.

Jeremy Tedesco, senior counsel for Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), commended the Eighth Circuit's affirmation "that the Larsens' films are fully protected speech and that the state lacks a compelling interest to force them to express messages through their films that violate their deeply held convictions."

"The government shouldn't threaten filmmakers with fines and jail time to force them to create films that violate their beliefs," said Tedesco, who argued before the appeals court on behalf of the Larsens in October 2018, in a written statement.

The Larsens say their company -- St. Cloud-based Telescope Media Group -- exists to glorify God, and they are excited at the possibility of portraying in their video productions the glory of God in marriage.

"Angel and I serve everyone," Carl Larsen said in an ADF news release after the opinion. "We just can't produce films promoting every message."

Under the MHRA, which prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation, the state says the Larsens "must depict same- and opposite-sex weddings in an equally 'positive' light," Eighth Circuit judge David Stras wrote in the majority opinion.

"Minnesota's interpretation of the MHRA interferes with the Larsens' speech in two overlapping ways," Stras wrote. "First, it compels the Larsens to speak favorably about same-sex marriage if they choose to speak favorably about opposite-sex marriage. Second, it operates as a content-based regulation of their speech.

"The Larsens' videos are a form of speech that is entitled to First Amendment protection."

Previous Supreme Court decisions demonstrate "regulating speech because it is discriminatory or offensive is not a compelling state interest, however hurtful the speech may be," Stras wrote.

"Indeed, if Minnesota were correct, there is no reason it would have to stop with the Larsens," Stras said in the opinion. "In theory, it could use the MHRA to require a Muslim tattoo artist to inscribe 'My religion is the only true religion' on the body of a Christian if he or she would do the same for a fellow Muslim, or it could demand that an atheist musician perform at an evangelical church service."

The Larsens' religious free-exercise claim is able to continue "because it is intertwined with their free-speech claim," Stras wrote. "The basic premise of the Larsens' free-exercise claim is that the MHRA, as interpreted by Minnesota, prevents them from freely exercising their religious beliefs. It does so, the Larsens say, because they will have to either show support for same-sex marriage, even though they object to it on religious grounds, or refrain from making wedding videos at all."

Tom Strode is Washington bureau chief for Baptist Press, the Southern Baptist Convention's news service. BP reports on missions, ministry and witness advanced through the Cooperative Program and on news related to Southern Baptists' concerns nationally and globally.
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