Angel and Carl Larsen, a Minnesota couple, had plans to expand their media production business into the lucrative wedding market. But not all weddings. The couple wanted to post a statement on their website saying they would not make films celebrating same-sex marriages, court documents said.
But with a ruling handed down in U.S. District Court in Minneapolis on Sept. 20, the Larsens ran into a legal roadblock, as Judge John R. Tunheim said their plan would be like posting a sign saying “White Applicants Only.” The couple is appealing the ruling, according to the Alliance Defending Freedom, a Christian nonprofit whose lawyers are representing the couple.
The case is the latest to highlight the clashes taking place in several states over same-sex marriage rights and the private business owners or citizens who cite their religious beliefs or freedom of expression to deny services to gay couples.
In Colorado in 2012, a baker refused to make a cake for a same-sex wedding, saying that doing so would violate his Christian faith and hijack his right to express himself. His decision has led to a showdown in the Supreme Court, which is set to hear the case this fall.
And in Kentucky in 2015, Kim Davis, a county clerk, cited her Christian beliefs in refusing to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples. Her actions came at a watershed moment for gay rights advocates, leading to lawsuits, a brief jail term for Davis for contempt of court and the passage of a new law removing clerks’ names from licenses.
The Supreme Court ruled in June 2015 that the Constitution guaranteed a right to same-sex marriage nationwide, but before that decision, same-sex couples were allowed to marry in three dozen states. One of them was Minnesota, where same-sex marriage was legalized in 2013.
This week’s decision in Minnesota traces back to December, when the Larsens filed a lawsuit against Kevin Lindsey, commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Human Rights, and Lori Swanson, the state’s attorney general.
Lindsey’s office said today that the department was “pleased” with the court’s decision, and if an appeal were filed, the state administration would “remain steadfast in ensuring that all people in Minnesota continue to be treated fairly by business owners.”
Swanson could not be reached for comment.
The Larsens said on their website that they founded their media production company, Telescope Media Group, to “magnify Christ like a telescope.” They said they wanted to counteract a “powerful cultural narrative undermining the historic, biblically orthodox definition of marriage as between one man and one woman,” according to court documents.
The couple said the state’s Human Rights Act, which prohibits a refusal to do business based on sexual orientation, hindered their plans to expand into wedding videos and infringed on their constitutional rights, including freedom of speech.
They had hoped to publish this statement on their website: “Telescope Media Group exists to glorify God through top-quality media production,” it read. “Because of TMG’s owners’ religious beliefs and expressive purposes, it cannot make films promoting any conception of marriage that contradicts its religious beliefs that marriage is between one man and one woman, including films celebrating same-sex marriages.”
But Tunheim, who dismissed the lawsuit, said that the statement was “conduct akin to a ‘White Applicants Only’ sign that may be prohibited without implicating the First Amendment.”
“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,” the judge said, adding, “as conduct carried out through language, this act is not protected by the First Amendment.”
The ADF said in a statement that the ruling was disappointing, but it was not the end.
“Tolerance is a two-way street,” said Jeremy D. Tedesco, who represented the Larsens. “Creative professionals who engage in the expression of ideas shouldn’t be threatened with fines and jail simply for having a particular point of view about marriage that the government may not favor.”