ST. PAUL — A federal court on Friday, Aug. 23, reinstated a St. Cloud couple's lawsuit seeking protection against a state public accommodation law which they say would require them to film same-sex couples' weddings, despite their deeply-held religious objections.
A three-judge panel of the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in a split decision reversed a lower court's ruling and said the couple has the standing to ask the lower court to prevent the state from enforcing a human rights law against them based on their First Amendment right to free speech.
Conservative groups hailed the decision as a win and civil liberties groups called it a step backward.
Carl and Angel Larsen run a Christian filmmaking business called Telescope Media Group and in 2016, they said they hoped to take up making videos of marriages between a man and a woman “to convey messages that promote aspects of their sincerely-held religious beliefs.”
But they worried that they would run afoul of the Minnesota Human Rights Act's requirement that they serve same-sex couples' weddings despite their religious beliefs that marriage should take place between opposite-sex couples. So in 2016, the couple sued the Minnesota Department of Human Rights, saying they shouldn't face hefty fines and jail time for turning away same-sex couples.
The U.S. District Court for the District of Minnesota dismissed the case and the Larsens, along with the conservative Christian legal group Alliance Defending Freedom, appealed the decision to the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, with various conservative groups and 10 states siding with them. The American Civil Liberties Union, Anti-Defamation League, 18 states and various other groups filed friend-of-the-court briefs opposing Telescope Media Group's effort.
And in an opinion filed Friday, the 8th Circuit Court reversed the lower court's ruling dismissing the case and said the Larsens could again ask the lower court to prevent the enforcement of the law against them. Two judges said the state would likely enforce the law if the Larsens pursued filming weddings and that could infringe upon their right to free speech.
"Even antidiscrimination laws, as critically important as they are, must yield to the Constitution," Judge David Stras wrote in the court's opinion. "And as compelling as the interest in preventing discriminatory conduct may be, speech is treated differently under the First Amendment."
Judge Jane Kelly in her dissent wrote that the court's decision would allow the Larsens to discriminate against prospective customers based on sexual orientation.
"Nothing stops a business owner from using today’s decision to justify new forms of discrimination tomorrow," Kelly wrote. "In this country’s long and difficult journey to combat all forms of discrimination, the court’s ruling represents a major step backward."
The Larsens and the Alliance Defending Freedom on Friday said the decision was a "significant win."
“Angel and I serve everyone," Carl Larsen said in a statement. "We just can’t produce films promoting every message."
Attorney General Keith Ellison and Minnesota Department of Human Rights Commissioner Rebecca Lucero, meanwhile, said they were weighing their next steps and felt the court had made the wrong decision. The attorney general's office, along with the office of the human rights commissioner, has argued against the exemption for Telescope Media Group.
“Minnesota is not in the business of creating second-class community members in our state,” Lucero said in a news release. “Time and again, Minnesotans have chosen love and inclusion in our communities in order to build a state where our laws lift up our beautiful and complex identities, not hold them down.”
The 8th Circuit Court heard arguments in the case last fall, months after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled for a Christian baker in Colorado that refused to bake a wedding cake for a same-sex couple.