Court put state law above First Amendment in wedding video case
A couple lost a challenge to a statute that would force them to make wedding films violating their beliefs. That’s bad for artistic professionals.
Carl and Angel Larsen — the filmmakers — own Telescope Media Group (TMG), a video and film production company in St. Cloud that exists to tell great stories that honor God.
Carl and Angel — the people — have hearts as grand as their artistic goals.
Their house is regularly filled with a diverse collection of people from their community. Under their 12-foot-long kitchen table are hundreds of signatures from visitors of all races and sexual orientations, holding different political beliefs and different (or no) religious beliefs.
And why not? As Carl says, “We love having people in our home who don’t agree with us.”
Through TMG, Carl and Angel offer a variety of services to the public, but their true gift lies in the artistry of their storytelling. And their passion — in part owing to their own 15-year marriage — is to tell stories about God’s design for marriage as a lifelong union of one man and one woman.
This passion for marriage landed them in federal court.
Carl and Angel believe God loves and created every human in His image. This belief drives their desire to work with all people, and it also guides their decision to decline requests to create media productions that promote racism, incite violence, degrade women or otherwise contradict biblical truth. And it compels them to portray marriage as a lifelong and sacred commitment between one man and one woman.
This last point puts them at odds with Minnesota’s Human Rights Act. According to state officials, the law requires the Larsens to make films celebrating same-sex marriage if they make films celebrating marriage between one man and one woman. A refusal to do so could be costly. The law imposes civil penalties, triple compensatory damages, punitive damages up to $25,000 and up to 90 days in jail.
Carl and Angel will not decline service to any individual. But they also don’t want to be forced to create stories that violate their deeply held beliefs about marriage. So the Larsens filed a lawsuit, asking the court to prevent the state from punishing them for exercising their First Amendment rights. But on Sept. 21, the U.S. District Court in Minnesota dismissed the suit. The order is notable not only for what it means to the Larsens, but also for what it could mean for all artistic professionals.
The court acknowledged that films are First Amendment-protected speech and assumed that Carl and Angel “exercise their First Amendment rights when they create wedding videos for customers.” The court also acknowledged that the compelled speech doctrine of the First Amendment “prohibits the government from telling people what they must say.” Nevertheless, the court concluded that, even though Minnesota’s law “does incidentally require [Carl and Angel] to make videos they might not want to make,” the compelled speech doctrine was “immaterial.”
Let’s restate that in plain English: The court said the First Amendment prohibits the government from forcing Carl and Angel to express messages they don’t want to express. Then the court said the Minnesota law “incidentally” forced Carl and Angel to express messages they don’t want to express. Then the court said that compulsion didn’t matter. And just like that, a state nondiscrimination law was elevated above the First Amendment.
Carl and Angel plan to appeal the court’s decision, but the Larsens are not the only artistic professionals finding themselves wedged between the First Amendment and nondiscrimination laws. As just one example, Jack Phillips, a cake artist from Colorado, is headed to the U.S. Supreme Court because of his decision to live by his conscience, declining to design a custom cake celebrating a same-sex marriage.
Despite the subject matter of these cases, the underlying issue transcends marriage. In the balance hangs the fate of all creative professionals and commissioned artists. Will they be free to create art and expression, serving everyone while still living peacefully according to their consciences? Or will the government be empowered to compel them to express political, social or religious messages that conflict with their deepest convictions?
Originally published at www.startribune.com on September 27, 2017.