Religious Freedom Win for Christians Who Refuse to Create Same-Sex Wedding Videos

On Friday, the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that a lower court had wrongly dismissed a case involving free speech and religious freedom. Minnesota filmmakers Carl and Angel Larsen, owners of Telescope Media Group, gladly serve all people but desire to make wedding videos that only include opposite-sex couples. Minnesota's Department of Human Rights ruled that this would constitute discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. Penalties for violating the law include a civil penalty, triple compensatory damages, punitive damages of up to $25,000, a criminal penalty of up to $1,000, and up to 90 days in jail.

The Larsens sued and requested a preliminary injunction to prevent Minnesota from enforcing the law against them until their case could be decided. A lower court rejected the lawsuit and the request for an injunction, but the 8th Circuit remanded the case, insisting that the Larsens have a strong free speech and religious freedom claim and that they likely deserve an injunction.

"This is a significant win. The government shouldn’t threaten filmmakers with fines and jail time to force them to create films that violate their beliefs," Jeremy Tedesco, senior counsel at Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), the law firm representing the Larsens, said in a statement. Tedesco argued for the Larsens before the 8th Circuit last October.

"Carl and Angel work with all people; they just don’t create films promoting all messages," Tedesco explained. "That’s why we’re pleased that the 8th Circuit has affirmed 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. All creative professionals should be free to create art consistent with their convictions without the threat of government punishment."

Telescope Media Group will not make films that, in their view, "contradict biblical truth; promote sexual immorality; support the destruction of unborn children; promote racism or racial division; incite violence; degrade women; or promote any conception of marriage other than as a lifelong institution between one man and one woman."

The Larsens aim to "capture the background stories of the couples' love" and "the sacredness of their sacrificial vows at the altar" in their videos. Minnesota interpreted this as a violation of the state's non-discrimination law. If Telescope Media makes wedding videos, it must make same-sex wedding videos. Yet Minnesota's Human Rights Department went even further — the Larsens must depict same-sex and opposite-sex weddings in an equally "positive" light.

The Larsens objected, pointing to the First Amendment rights of free speech, religious freedom, freedom of association, and more. The district court had rejected the Larsens' argument, saying they failed to state a claim. In Telescope Media Group v. Lucero, the 8th Circuit ruled against many of the Larsens' claims, but upheld the validity of their free speech and religious freedom arguments.

"Carl and Angel Larsen wish to make wedding videos. Can Minnesota require them to produce videos of same-sex weddings, even if the message would conflict with their own beliefs? The district court concluded that it could and dismissed the Larsens’ constitutional challenge to Minnesota’s antidiscrimination law. Because the First Amendment allows the Larsens to choose when to speak and what to say, we reverse the dismissal of two of their claims and remand with instructions to consider whether they are entitled to a preliminary injunction," the 8th Circuit ruled.

Among other reasons, the court noted that if Minnesota could force the Larsens to make videos celebrating same-sex weddings, "there is no reason it would have to stop with the Larsens. 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."

"In fact, if Minnesota were to do what other jurisdictions have done and declare political affiliation or ideology to be a protected characteristic, then it could force a Democratic speechwriter to provide the same services to a Republican, or it could require a professional entertainer to perform at rallies for both the Republican and Democratic candidates for the same office," the court added. This is no idle warning.

"Angel and I serve everyone. We just can’t produce films promoting every message," Carl Larsen said after the 8th Circuit's decision. "We are thankful the court recognized that government officials can’t force religious believers to violate their beliefs to pursue their passion. This is a win for everyone, regardless of your beliefs."

Contrary to the LGBT narrative, refusing to celebrate a same-sex wedding is not the same thing as discriminating against a person because he or she identifies as lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender. Americans have the free speech right not to be compelled to endorse an event they disagree with. This is quite different from posting a "no gays allowed" sign on a business — that would be the kind of discrimination illegal in many states.

While few gay or lesbian people might trust the Larsens to make them a wedding video, the government has already threatened to compel them to speak in favor of same-sex marriage. The 8th Circuit rightly noted that this likely violates the First Amendment, but the Larsens' battle is far from over.

Follow Tyler O'Neil, the author of this article, on Twitter at @Tyler2ONeil.