In Gay Wedding Case, Minnesota and LGBT Community Win

by | September 21, 2017

By Stephen Montemayor

A St. Cloud couple will not be able to refuse wedding videography services for same-sex couples after a federal judge on Wednesday dismissed their lawsuit challenging Minnesota's human rights laws.

In a 63-page ruling, Chief U.S. District Judge John Tunheim wrote that a provision of the Minnesota Human Rights Act (MHRA) prohibiting discrimination by businesses was not unconstitutional. Tunheim rejected the couple's argument that the law amounted to "a state effort to stamp out expression opposing same-sex marriage."

Carl and Angel Larsen sued the state's commissioner of human rights and attorney general in December in an pre-emptive effort to avoid penalties for turning away same-sex customers.

The Larsens, who use their Telescope Media Group to promote their Christian beliefs, want to go into the wedding film business, but serve only heterosexual couples.

Earlier this year, the Larsens asked Tunheim for a preliminary injunction shielding their business from potential penalties under the MHRA. On Wednesday, Tunheim sided with the state's request that the suit be tossed.

In a statement Wednesday, Kevin Lindsey, the state's commissioner of human rights, said the Larsens were unable to demonstrate any infringement of their First Amendment rights.

"In the event an appeal is filed, the Dayton-Smith Administration will remain steadfast in ensuring that all people in Minnesota continue to be treated fairly by business owners," Lindsey said.

The Larsens have said that they want to post a notice on their website of their intent to deny services to same-sex couples.

On Wednesday, Tunheim described that as "conduct akin to a 'White Applicants Only' sign" that may be outlawed without infringing on First Amendment rights.

"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. "As conduct carried out through language, this act is not protected by the First Amendment."

Tunheim concluded that the MHRA forbids discrimination in the basic terms of an agreement, such as charging a higher price or declining services based on sexual orientation.

The Larsens must offer services to couples of all sexual orientation, but Tunheim wrote that they are not required to publish each video online and he suggested that they could even post language on their site expressing opposition to same-sex marriage.

"The Larsens have an obvious, easy way to avoid hardship -- the terms of their contracts are within their control, and state law does not compel them to contractually obligate themselves to post videos of same-sex weddings online," Tunheim wrote Wednesday.

The Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), a national conservative Christian legal group, has represented the couple. Jeremy Tedesco, an attorney for the Larsens, confirmed that the ADF planned to appeal to the Eighth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals while also continuing to seek a preliminary injunction.

Tunheim disagreed with the Larsens' claim that the MHRA would require all public accommodations offering "speech-for-hire" services to create work even if they disagreed with the message conveyed, concluding that the MHRA is content-neutral.

Tedesco, meanwhile, said Tunheim's suggestion that the Larsens could publish a disclaimer on their site that they disagreed with same-sex marriage merely opens the door to government compelling people to say "whatever it wanted" while adding personal disclaimers.

"People can be for same-sex marriage and at the same time support our clients' right to create films consistent with their beliefs about marriage," Tedesco said. "When we allow the government to have the power to compel Carl and Angel Larsen to create and promote expression that violates their beliefs there is no limit on that power."

The lawsuit was one of the first challenges since Minnesota legalized same-sex marriage in 2013 and since the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2015 that there is a fundamental right to marriage for all. Minnesota doesn't compel religious organizations to perform same-sex weddings but does prohibit "individuals, nonprofits or secular business activities of religious entities" from denying wedding services.

The Larsens maintain that the state's human rights law excludes them from the marketplace because they cannot "in good conscience" produce speech communicating the message that marriage is anything other than the union of one man and one woman.

The case has drawn parallels to an impending Supreme Court showdown this fall involving a Colorado baker's refusal to make a wedding cake for a same-sex couple in the Denver area. The ADF is also representing the baker, Jack Phillips.

On Wednesday, Minneapolis joined an amicus brief in the Supreme Court case. The city said that the brief, being prepared by lawyers in California, will support the Colorado Civil Rights Commission and point to "long-standing legal precedent that businesses cannot discriminate in public services or accommodations" regardless of religious beliefs.

A city spokesperson said the outcome of the Supreme Court showdown will likely have a significant effect on cities and counties nationwide that "seek to ensure that no members of their communities are subjected to discrimination on the basis of their sexual orientation or any other protected status."

(c)2017 the Star Tribune (Minneapolis)