By Jonathan Stempel
(Reuters) – A federal appeals court on Friday revived a lawsuit by a Minnesota couple challenging a state law requiring that their video production company film same-sex weddings, which they say violates their Christian beliefs.
In a 2-1 decision, the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in St. Paul, Minnesota, said Angel and Carl Larsen can try to show that the law violates their rights to free speech and to freely exercise their religious beliefs under the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.
Circuit Judge David Stras, an appointee of President Donald Trump, called videos by the St. Cloud, Minnesota, couple “a medium for the communication of ideas about marriage,” and said the state’s law “is targeting speech itself.”
The court ordered U.S. District Judge John Tunheim in Minneapolis to decide whether the Larsens and their Telescope Media Group deserve a preliminary injunction against the law, which subjects violators to fines and possible jail time. Tunheim had dismissed the lawsuit in September 2017.
“With this perversion of the First Amendment, the majority sanctions a policy of ‘No gays allowed,’” Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison, a Democrat who defended the law, said in a statement.
He pledged to respond in the “strongest and most strategic way possible” to the decision.
“Angel and I serve everyone,” Carl Larsen said, in a statement provided by his lawyers at Alliance Defending Freedom. “We just can’t produce films promoting every message.”
The case is among several in recent years where private business owners or individuals invoked their religious beliefs to deny services to same-sex couples.
In June, for example, the Washington Supreme Court ruled for a second time against a Christian florist for refusing to sell flowers to a same-sex couple for their wedding, setting up a potential clash at the U.S. Supreme Court.
Meanwhile, Kentucky county clerk Kim Davis in 2015 cited her religious beliefs in refusing to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples.
Same-sex marriage became legal in Minnesota in 2013, and nationwide in 2015.
The Larsens said they wanted to use their talents to honour God, including by producing wedding videos promoting marriage as a “sacrificial covenant between one man and one woman.”
Minnesota objected, saying the Larsens had to produce videos of same-sex weddings as well as opposite-sex weddings, or else produce none.
But in Friday’s decision, Stras said the Larsens could try to show that Minnesota law interfered with their message “by requiring them to say something they otherwise would not.”
He distinguished antidiscrimination laws targeting conduct and only incidentally affecting speech, calling it “unquestionably” acceptable to require an employer to remove a “White Applicants Only” sign.
Circuit Judge Jane Kelly dissented, saying the majority’s approach could support treating customers differently based on sex, race, religion and disability.
“Nothing stops a business owner from using today’s decision to justify new forms of discrimination tomorrow,” she wrote. “In this country’s long and difficult journey to combat all forms of discrimination, the court’s ruling represents a major step backward.”
The case is Telescope Media Group et al v Lucero, 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, No. 17-3352.
(Reporting by Jonathan Stempel in New York; editing by Jonathan Oatis, David Gregorio and Tom Brown)