Appeals Court Says Minnesota Camera Bigots Don't Have To Shoot Gay Weddings, STRAIGHTS ONLY!
Carl and Angel Larsen of St. Cloud, Minnesota, don't like gay people, and they REALLY don't like gay weddings. In fact, they hate gay weddings so much they sued to be exempted from a civil rights law, so their business could openly discriminate against same-sex couples. And now, ruling in their favor in Telescope Media Group v. Lucero, a federal court has given them the go-ahead.
The Larsens own Telescope Media Group (TMG) and they want to expand their business to start videotaping weddings. But because their religion apparently requires them to be homophobic, they only want to tape straight weddings. This is prohibited by the Minnesota Human Rights Act (MHRA), which bans discrimination in public accommodations on the basis of sexual orientation. Basically, when a business is open to the public, it isn't allowed to discriminate.
Along with discriminating against same-sex couples, the Larsens want to include a disclaimer about how much they hate gay weddings on their website, saying:
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.
Because gay married people don't deserve to celebrate and be happy, obviously.
The Larsens call themselves "Christians who believe that God has called them to use their talents and their company to [...] honor God," and say they can't do business that doesn't fit within their religious beliefs. This includes requests that, in their opinion, "contradict biblical truth; promote sexual immorality; support the destruction of unborn children; promote racism or racial division; incite violence; degrade women; or promote any conception of marriage other than as a lifelong institution between one man and one woman." So they sued, asking to be exempted from the MHRA, a civil rights law that was enacted to help stop discrimination.
Civil rights laws have a long history in our country, and a string of cases upholding laws like the Civil Rights Act of 1964 have affirmed their constitutionality. In fact, the MHRA itself was already upheld by the US Supreme Court back in 1984, when nonprofit group Jaycees brought a case arguing for its right to discriminate against women in Roberts v. US Jaycees. And in Masterpiece Cakeshop, the 2018 SCOTUS case about those homophobic bakers from Colorado, even the right-wing activist Roberts court held that religious objections generally "do not allow business owners [...] to deny protected persons equal access to goods and services under a neutral and generally applicable public accommodations law."
US District Judge John Tunheim in Minneapolis had dismissed the Larsens' case, noting that businesses generally aren't allowed get around civil rights laws by claiming they have a religious belief that requires discrimination. But two-thirds of a three-judge panel of the Eighth Circuit (the federal appellate court for Minnesota, Iowa, Nebraska, Missouri, Arkansas, and the Dakotas) disagreed, and on Friday, reinstated the Larsens' case.
Circuit Judge David Stras, a Trump appointee whose nomination was roundly opposed by civil rights organizations, wrote the majority opinion. Joined by Judge Shepherd, a George W. Bush appointee, Judge Stras reversed the lower court's dismissal of the Larsens' case and ordered Judge Tunheim to reconsider their request for an injunction saying the law doesn't apply to them.
The Larsens are represented by a known hate group called the Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), which is a really big fan of discrimination, especially discrimination against LGBTQ people. It has an entire section of its website devoted to explaining why it doesn't believe same-sex couples should have a right to get married, including such gems as:
Opponents of marriage will not stop at removing the foundation of civilization. They will redesign society at the cost of your religious freedom.
So yeah, these are great people.
People suck and this decision sucks. And as fucking awful as it is that these bigots want to discriminate against LGBTQ people, it doesn't begin or end there.
For decades, hateful nutjobs have tried to get courts to let them discriminate against all sorts of people for all sorts of reasons. Back in the 1970s and 1980s, the psychos over at Bob Jones University went up to the Supreme Court to try to protect its "First Amendment right" to prohibit interracial relationships. Thankfully, SCOTUS gave them a big, fat thumbs down. But right-wing obsessions over what happens in other people's bedrooms, combined with the disaster that is currently our federal court system, have recently breathed new life into the opposition to civil rights laws. Because we obviously need to protect the sacred Christian right to discriminate against others. You know, like Jesus would have done.
At least one judge on the Eighth Circuit panel understood just how problematic this case was. In her dissent, Judge Jane Kelly, an Obama appointee, pointed out what was actually going on here.
The Larsens remain free to communicate any message they desire—about same-sex marriage or any other topic—or no message at all. What they cannot do is operate a public accommodation that serves customers of one sexual orientation but not others. And make no mistake, that is what today's 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. That the service the Larsens want to make available to the public is expressive does not transform Minnesota's law into a content-based regulation, nor should it empower the Larsens to discriminate against prospective customers based on sexual orientation.
Judge Kelly also highlighted the danger in opinions like the majority holding in this case.
By ruling that, under the Larsens' allegations, the MHRA is subject to and fails strict scrutiny, the court carves out an exception of staggering breadth. Under its logic, any time that a state's regulation of discriminatory conduct requires a person to provide services that "express" something that they dislike, the law is invalid. That ruling cannot be easily limited. Innumerable companies and individuals sell products and services that are in some shape or form expressive. The court provides no way to distinguish whether its holding applies to all, or only some, of those industries. It might be easy to conclude that some services are sufficiently similar to videography as to warrant the same treatment as the Larsens get today—photography, for example, or other forms of visual art. But what about bakers, fashion designers, florists, graphic designers, tattoo artists, calligraphers, jewelers, chefs, tailors, or musicians? Are all of those businesses allowed to refuse service to gays and lesbians whenever doing so would conflict with the business owner's personal religious or philosophical beliefs? What about more traditional public accommodations, like hotels? Can an inn-keeper deny a same-sex couple access to the honeymoon suite because handing over the keys would "express" an endorsement of their marriage?
For his part, Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison raged against the Eighth Circuit's decision.
"This split decision today marks a shocking reversal of Minnesota's evolution toward equality for LGBTQ people — with consequences for the entire country," Ellison said in a statement. "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 decision smacks of other dark moments in our nation's history when courts have infamously upheld discrimination."
Add[ing] that the decision offended him as a human being, Ellison vowed as state attorney general to "respond in the strongest and most strategic way possible to maximize human rights and dignity for LGBTQ people and for everyone — no exceptions."
It's up to Minnesota to decide what to do next. They can either ask the entire Eighth Circuit to rehear the case, appeal it up to the US Supreme Court, or go back down to the lower court to keep duking it out with the homophobes over at ADF.
It's outrageous that we're still arguing over whether people have a First Amendment right to discriminate against LGBTQ people in the fucking 21st century, but it's #2019, so here we are. And at least decent people who Google the Laresens and Telescope Media Group will be able to see the bullshit and bigotry they espouse.
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