A federal appeals court has reinstated a Minnesota couple’s lawsuit seeking the right to deny filming same-sex weddings because it goes against their religious beliefs. The couple is suing the state saying its human rights law that prohibits discrimination by public businesses from discriminating against various minority groups, including LGBTQ+ people, violates their First Amendment right to free speech.

A three-judge panel of the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals in a split decision Aug. 23 overruled a lower court decision’s that threw out the lawsuit two years ago. The lower court must now consider the First Amendment argument.

Angel and Carl Larsen are suing Minnesota because they don't want to film same-sex weddings. Photo via Alliance for Defending Freedom
Angel and Carl Larsen are suing their state because they don’t want to film same-sex weddings.
Photo via Alliance for Defending Freedom

Carl and Angel Larsen, who operate a Christian film and videography business, sued Minnesota Human Rights Commissioner Rebecca Lucero in 2016 saying they feared the “state’s public accommodations law could hit them with steep fines or jail time if they offered services promoting only their vision of marriage” between a man and a woman, according to the Minnesota Star Tribune newspaper

Judge David Stras, writing for the 2-1 majority, stated in part that the First Amendment allows the Larsens “to choose when to speak and what to say” including when it comes to making the videos they want to make. 

“Their videos of ‘healthy stories of sacrificial love and commitment between a man and a woman,’ depict marriage as a divinely ordained covenant, and oppose the ‘current cultural narratives about marriage with which [the Larsens] disagree,” Stras added. “The videos themselves are, in a word, speech.” 

Judge Jane Kelly in the dissent described the decision as a “major step backward” in “this country’s long and difficult journey to combat all forms of discrimination,” according to the Star Tribune. 

In her dissent, she wrote, “What [the Larsens] cannot do is operate a public accommodation that serves customers of one sexual orientation but not others. And make no mistake, that is what [this] decision affords them license to do. 

“The Larsens concede that they want to operate a public accommodation that serves only opposite-sex couples. Minnesota’s law prohibits that conduct just as it would prohibit any hotel from denying its services to an individual based on race, any store from refusing to sell goods to a person based on religion, or any restaurant from charging higher prices to women than to men,” Kelly stated.  

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Lucero issued a statement on the federal appeals court decision, saying the Minnesota Department of Human Rights is now working with the Minnesota Attorney General’s Office to “explore all legal options.” 

“Minnesota is not in the business of creating second-class community members in our state,” Lucero said in the statement. “Time and again, Minnesotans have chosen love and inclusion in our communities in order to build a state where our laws lift up our beautiful and complex identities, not hold them down.”

Attorney General Keith Ellison said in a statement that the federal appeals court’s decision “marks a shocking reversal of Minnesota’s evolution toward equality for LGBTQ people,” according to Minnesota Public Radio. 

“With this perversion of the First Amendment, the majority sanctions a policy of ‘No gays allowed,’” Ellison said. “A ruling that lets a business discriminate against LGBTQ folks today would let it discriminate on the basis of religion, race, gender, ability or any other category it chooses tomorrow.” 

The Larsens are represented by the anti-LGBTQ+ Alliance Defending Freedom nonprofit organization, a Christian legal group considered the largest in the nation and is well-known for challenging LGBTQ+ equality laws.

In a statement through ADF, Carl Larsen praised the court of appeals decision. 

“Angel and I serve everyone. We just can’t produce films promoting every message,” Carl Larsen said. 

“We are thankful the court recognized that government officials can’t force religious believers to violate their beliefs to pursue their passion. This is a win for everyone, regardless of your beliefs,” he added.

The ADF has been labeled a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center. During ADF’s approximate 25-year history the group has continuously fought against LGBTQ+ equality laws, including supporting and representing people and groups who seek to discriminate against LGBTQ+ people “under the guise of religious freedom,” according to the Human Rights Campaign

ADF also has support from the highest ranks of the White House administration. Vice President Mike Pence spoke Aug. 6 to the organization in Virginia, praising the legal organization’s work in protecting so-called “religious freedom.”

 “As you know well, we’ve taken action to protect the freedom of speech in places of worship, and we’ve restored federal enforcement of our nation’s conscience laws,” Pence said

“We’ve taken action to protect the conscience rights of doctors and nurses and health care providers. We’ve also gone to court to protect the right to religious expression in the public square. And the Alliance Defending Freedom has been there every step of the way,” Pence said.