ST. LOUIS (CN) – New York, California and 17 other states filed a brief with the Eighth Circuit arguing against a Minnesota couple who claim they should not be forced to make wedding videos for gay couples because of their religious beliefs.
In December 2016, Carl and Angel Larsen and their media production company, Telescope Media Group, sued Minnesota Attorney General Lori Swanson and Kevin Lindsey, commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Human Rights, alleging they faced fines of up to $25,000 and 90 days in jail for running afoul of the state’s anti-discrimination laws.
Minnesota is regarded as one of the most LGBTQ-friendly states in the nation and created provisions under the Minnesota Human Rights Act to protect gay and transgender citizens from discrimination in public and at businesses.
Commissioner Lindsey said at the time that the Larsens’ lawsuit was part of a “pattern of nationwide litigation that is now aimed at eroding the rights of LGBTQ Minnesotans.”
The couple had proposed posting a statement on their business website that would make clear their religious beliefs that marriage should only be between a man and woman.
Last year, U.S. District Judge John Tunheim in Minneapolis likened the statement to a “white applicants only” sign. The judge dismissed the Larsens’ claim that state anti-discrimination law violated their right to freedom of expression and free exercise of religion under the First Amendment.
“Posting language on a website telling potential customers that a business will discriminate based on sexual orientation is part of the act of sexual orientation discrimination itself,” Tunheim wrote.
The couple appealed to the St. Louis-based Eighth Circuit last October.
Ten states – Alabama, Arkansas, Kansas, Louisiana, Missouri, Nebraska, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Texas, and West Virginia – filed a brief in support of the Larsens.
On Tuesday, 19 state attorneys general answered by filing a friend-of-the-court brief defending the Minnesota Department of Human Rights and the constitutionality of the state’s anti-discrimination law.
“Free speech and personal beliefs do not give business owners the right to discriminate,” New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman said in a statement. “Our coalition of attorneys general will continue to fight to protect New Yorkers and all Americans who are entitled to equal protection, no matter who they love.”
The coalition of attorneys general argue that states have created laws to prevent discrimination against the LGBTQ community, including at businesses, and U.S. Supreme Court rulings have found that requiring businesses to comply with anti-discrimination laws is not unconstitutional.
Granting an exemption to those businesses would curtail anti-discrimination laws, according to the brief filed with the Eighth Circuit.
“Many Americans would face exclusion from a host of everyday businesses or, at the very least, the ever-present threat that any business owner could refuse to serve them when they walk in the door – simply because of their sexual orientation, or their race, religion, or gender,” the 32-page brief states.
The attorneys general of California, Connecticut, Delaware, District of Columbia, Hawaii, Illinois, Iowa, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont, Virginia, and Washington joined the brief. Massachusetts State Solicitor Elizabeth Dewar is designated counsel of record.
Conservative advocacy group Alliance Defending Freedom represents the Larsens and has filed five similar lawsuits on behalf of businesses and churches.
The group also backs Colorado cake maker Jack Phillips in the closely watched U.S. Supreme Court case Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission. Phillips refused to design and make a cake for a gay couple who came into his store, arguing he is an artist who “strives to honor God in all aspects of his life.” The nation’s highest court is expected to issue a ruling this summer, at the end of the current term.
Carl Larsen said in a statement on the Alliance Defending Freedom website that he and his wife “believe marriage is a sacred covenant between a man and a woman” and that “marriage exists to put God’s goodness on full display to the world.”
“We want to tell the stories of couples who agree with this reality,” he said.
Alliance Defending Freedom senior counsel Jeremy Tedesco said in a statement that the Larsens should not face fines and jail time, even if they don’t comply with Minnesota law.
“Every American – including creative professionals – should be free to peacefully live and work according to their faith without fear of punishment,” Tedesco said.