Videographers Argue for Right to Refuse Gay Couples

(CN) – An attorney for Minnesota videographers who refuse to shoot same-sex weddings argued before an Eighth Circuit panel Tuesday that doing so would violate 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, saying they faced fines of up to $25,000 and 90 days in jail for running afoul of the state’s anti-discrimination laws.

The couple had proposed posting a statement on their business website that would make clear their Christian 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 ruling prompted an appeal to the Eighth Circuit. A friend-of-the-court brief was filed by 19 state attorneys general defending the Minnesota Department of Human Rights and the constitutionality of the state’s anti-discrimination law.

Earlier this year, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 7-2 in favor of Colorado cake baker Jack Phillips who did not want to make a cake for a gay couple.

The court’s narrow ruling focused on whether the Colorado Civil Rights Commission evinced bias toward Phillips in its decision and avoided the underlying issue in both the Colorado and Minnesota cases: whether a business can refuse to serve gay and lesbian customers.

Attorney Jeremy Tedesco of Alliance Defending Freedom, the same organization that represented Phillips, argued on behalf of the Minnesota videographers Tuesday in the Eighth Circuit.

He said the Larsens can deny service to same-sex couples because it is an objection to the content, not the person.

U.S. Judge Jane Kelly said that the Supreme Court recognizes gay marriage as a right for all people and asked how an expressive view can be intertwined with a public service connected to this right.

“The Supreme Court has never compelled speech where the speaker disagrees with the speech,” Tedesco replied. “People who hold religious views like Carl and Angel Larsen do so based on decent and honorable beliefs.”

He added, “To respect those beliefs and to show the kind of tolerance that those beliefs need within our society, which was the message of [Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission]… the state can’t cross that line and force people to endorse an idea about marriage through their speech that violates their beliefs.”

Assistant Attorney General Alethea Huyser represented Minnesota and “reminded” the court that this isn’t the first time people with strongly held beliefs, who were considered decent and upstanding members of society, discriminated in public services, citing segregated lunch counters and schools.

The panel pushed back and asked what happens if the court finds the speech at issue is compelled.

Huyser said in response that Minnesota’s anti-discrimination law is “really not trying to prohibit their message, it’s trying to regulate the sale of goods.”

U.S. Circuit Judges Bobby Shepherd and David Stras joined Kelly on the panel.

Arguments lasted about 40 minutes. It is unclear when the court will issue its ruling.

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