In Religious Freedom Case, State Says It Can Force a Muslim Tattoo Artist to Endorse Christianity

On Tuesday, the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals heard arguments in a case examining whether the State of Minnesota can force a Christian media company to make videos celebrating same-sex weddings, in violation of its religious beliefs that marriage is between one man and one woman. Jeremy Tedesco, senior counsel at Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) recounted one particularly memorable admission in the case.

As with similar religious freedom cases, the State of Minnesota insisted that if a small Christian company — in this case Telescope Media Group — wants to serve weddings involving one man and one woman, it has to serve same-sex weddings as well. Doing so would violate the religious beliefs of the owners, Carl and Angel Larsen, who aim to glorify God with their company by celebrating weddings that fit the Bible's definition.

While Minnesota claims to be protecting LGBT people from discrimination, in reality it is forcing Christian business owners to violate their consciences by promoting an event that violates their consciences.

A few crucial questions revealed that Minnesota's true goal is to coerce small businesses like this one to express a message the owners disagree with.

"The state was asked whether a Muslim tattoo artist could be forced by the state to tattoo the words, 'My God is the only God' on a Christian customer," Tedesco told PJ Media in an interview after oral arguments on Tuesday. "The answer was yes, that the state has the power to force a Muslim tattoo artist to tattoo a message they disagree with."

"They say anybody who creates speech for a living can have their speech compelled by the government," he explained, a position "completely inconsistent with the First Amendment."

The Larsens brought a lawsuit against Kevin Lindsey, commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Human Rights, and Lori Swanson, attorney general of Minnesota, to challenge a Minnesota law that forces them to violate their religious beliefs.

"Minnesota law forces the Larsens to produce videos promoting a conception of marriage that directly contradicts their religious beliefs if they produce videos promoting marriages between one man and one woman," the suit explains. "Defendant Kevin Lindsey ... [has] repeatedly stated that private businesses violate the Minnesota Human Rights Act ... if they decline to create expressive wedding-related services celebrating same-sex weddings."

According to the suit, "the Larsens are deeply concerned that American culture is increasingly turning away from the historic, biblically-orthodox definition of marriage as a lifelong union of one man and one woman, and that more and more people are accepting the view that same-sex marriage is equivalent to one-man, one-woman marriage."

One of the Larsens' clear goals in running Telescope Media Group is to "use their talents and expressive platform ... to celebrate and promote God's design for marriage as a lifelong union of one man and one woman."

The Larsens have a three-step process for every wedding they celebrate in film. First, they get to know the engaged couple, in order to capture their story. On the wedding day, they capture footage of the event and put together a video on-site, in time for the reception. Finally, they create a lengthier wedding video for the couple to emphasize the beauty of God's design for marriage.

"Specifically, the Larsens desire to counteract the current cultural narrative undermining the historic, biblically-orthodox definition of marriage by using their media production and filmmaking talents to tell stories of marriages between one man and one woman that magnify and honor God's design and purpose for marriage," the suit explained.

For these reasons, if Minnesota were to force the Larsens to use "their media production and filmmaking talents to produce a video promoting or communicating the idea that marriage can exist between anyone but one man and one woman," it would constitute compelled speech, compelling them to violate their religious beliefs by force of law.

When asked how the arguments went this morning, ADF lawyer Jeremy Tedesco said, "I thought the arguments went very well." He emphasized that the court was asking the right questions.

"One of the main questions was, 'How does the Supreme Court's decision in Masterpiece Cakeshop impact this case?'" Tedesco recalled, referencing the case of baker Jack Phillips, who gladly served LGBT customers but refused to bake a cake to celebrate a same-sex wedding. "Masterpiece recognized that laws like Minnesota's could very well cross the line and force people to express views about marriage they disagree with."

Tedesco argued that if the government can compel Telescope Media Group to express support for same-sex marriage through their art, the same government can force an atheist to promote a belief in God.

"The state's position is the same as the state saying it could threaten an atheist marketer to design a billboard campaign for a church promoting belief in God," the ADF lawyer claimed. "The First Amendment doesn't allow the state to coerce speech from anyone, and that's what the state says it has the power to do here."

"Carl and Angel Larsen are storytellers," Tedesco explained. "They want to tell marriage stories that glorify God, so they have a particular religious message they want to express in their films. The state says if they enter the market to express those messages, it can force them to make messages that contradict those beliefs."

LGBT activists insist that if Christians like the Larsens have the free speech and religious freedom to opt out of making products that celebrate same-sex weddings, that constitutes a "right to discriminate." These claims actually undermine the importance of anti-discrimination law, however.

In a unanimous ruling, the British Supreme Court upheld religious freedom against specious claims that it constituted "discrimination," and explained that such attacks on religious freedom actually belittle the real harms of true discrimination.

"It is deeply humiliating, and an affront to human dignity, to deny someone a service because of that person's race, gender, disability, sexual orientation, or any of the other protected personal characteristics," Brenda Hale, the Supreme Court president, wrote in a recent opinion. "But that is not what happened in this case and it does the project of equal treatment no favours to extend it beyond its proper scope."

That case involved Asher's Bakery, a bakery owned and operated by Christians Daniel and Amy McArthur. That bakery refused to bake a cake with the picture of cartoon characters "Bert and Ernie" and the message "Support Gay Marriage." This fell well within the owners' rights to religious freedom and free expression — even without the vital protections of the First Amendment.

If the McArthurs' rights were protected without the First Amendment and by a court extremely concerned with discrimination, how much more should the Larsens' free speech and religious freedom be protected under the First Amendment?

In particular, it seems Minnesota revealed its hand by arguing that since it can force the Larsens to endorse gay marriage, it can also force a Muslim tattoo artist to endorse Christianity. This case is not about preventing discrimination — it's about compelling speech.

Watch a video about the Larsens' case below.

Follow the author of this article on Twitter at @Tyler2ONeil.