by Leo Thuman
This past Friday marked a significant victory for religious freedom. The Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals struck down most of a U.S. District Court decision which threatened to force videographers to produce content that violates the commands of their conscience. Instead, the appeals court ruled that a Minnesota anti-discrimination law could very well be unconstitutional and that a challenge to the law could therefore proceed.
The appellants, Carl and Angel Larsen, own a videography company called Telescope Media which produces commercial short-films and other video products. They first brought their case forward when they took the Minnesota Human Rights Commissioner Kevin Lindsay to court in 2016, alleging that regulations the Commission was tasked with enforcing could prevent the Larsens from breaking into the wedding videography market, due to their belief in a traditional definition of marriage.
That initial complaint filed by the Larsens thoroughly demonstrated the Christian nature of their company’s beliefs. For example, it pointed out that their company is named Telescope Media because of Christian theologian John Piper’s observation that “God created the universe to magnify His glory the way a telescope magnifies stars.” They also thoroughly outlined the basis of their religious objection to filming same-sex weddings. What’s more, they clarified that they had no objection to serving anyone. Rather, they objected to the idea that they could be compelled to provide a speech-product which would violate their artistic and religious principles.
Nevertheless, in 2017 the Minnesota District’s Chief Judge John Tunheim dismissed the complaint “with extreme prejudice” as Commissioner Lindsay and Minnesota’s Attorney General had requested. He claimed that the Larsens didn’t have standing. Controversially, he argued for a very broad interpretation of the constitutional power of government to abridge First Amendment rights in the area of commerce. Tunheim also suggested that a statement of faith on Telescope’s website including its wedding video policy would be similar to hiring discrimination in the pre-Civil Rights Act South, comparing it to a “white applicants only” sign.
Only months later, a more widely publicized case in the same area was argued before the Supreme Court: Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission. There, the Supreme Court rejected the type of reasoning employed by Judge Tunheim. The court argued instead that Colorado’s similar “non-discrimination” statutes could be applied in a way which unfairly burdened the plaintiff’s conscience rights.
Friday’s Eight Circuit decision similarly determined that the Minnesota law could very well lead to unconstitutional enforcement actions against the Larsens. Not surprisingly, this led to the Eighth Circuit holding that the couple had standing.
The reversal was built upon a thorough argument based on a strong judicial philosophy. That argument addressed the slim capacity for limitation of and the necessity of protecting religious liberty. More interestingly perhaps, the Masterpiece case is cited nine times. This is unsurprising, because the material objections in each case are similar. The baker in Masterpiece and the couple in this case both resist a statute which would force them to provide a product they have religious objections to providing. But they do not discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation, because their refusal of service isn’t based on a would-be customer’s personal life but rather the way that statutes would compel their speech.
With a number of related religious liberty cases also making their way through the courts nationwide, this Minnesota case will demand consideration in the months ahead.
Photo credit: wp paarz via Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0