A Minnesota couple skirmishing on the front lines of the culture war over a business’s right to say no to same-sex marriage clients suffered a setback this week.
In December 2016, Carl and Angel Larsen, owners of videography company Telescope Media Group, targeted the state in a lawsuit challenging a provision in Minnesota’s Human Rights Act outlawing discrimination. This week, Chief U.S. District Court John Tunheim dismissed the case, ruling that the Larsens’ wish to turn down same-sex clients was “conduct akin to a ‘White Applicants Only’ sign,” according to the Star Tribune.
Despite the ruling, the issue is not likely to fade away soon. The St. Cloud couple’s attorney has indicated that the Larsens plan to appeal the ruling. But on a larger scale, the same powerhouse conservative group driving the litigation has a similar case at the U.S. Supreme Court.
The couple’s original suit challenged the constitutionality of the state statute. The Larsens, according to their complaint, were trying to break into the wedding videography business, but the Christian pair wanted to work only with heterosexual couples. To do otherwise would be “promoting a conception of marriage that directly contradicts their religious beliefs,” the lawsuit argued.
But due to an update to the state’s Human Rights Act, it is illegal for businesses to treat people differently because of “race, color, national origin, sex, disability, sexual orientation,” according to the state’s website. The civil penalties for violators can be as much as $25,000.
In interviews and statements at the time, the Larsens shoehorned their legal argument into terms of artistic freedom.
“Imagine, if you can, government officials sitting down with Alfred Hitchcock back in the day, to tell him that, despite his commitment to making great films of suspense, political correctness demanded that he start making musicals, too. Or else,” Carl Larsen wrote in a December 2016 commentary in the Star Tribune. “Or maybe they’d crack down on Steven Spielberg. If he’s going to make a monster hit about a shark, he’s going to have to do films about dolphins, too. Again, or else.”
“Creative professionals don’t surrender their freedom of speech and freedom from coercion when they choose to make a living with their art,” the couple told CNN.
These statements played into a larger legal strategy.
The Alliance Defending Freedom — an Arizona-based Christian right legal advocacy group behind same-sex marriage and trans rights challenges across the country — took up the couple’s cause. With reportedly 3,000 attorneys across the country and $44 million in funding, according to Mother Jones, the ADF is a considerable force in a courtroom.
The organization is also behind Jack Phillips, the Colorado cake maker who sued for the right to refuse to make wedding cakes for same-sex weddings. That legal challenge, which like the Larsens’ case is framed as a fight for of artistic expression, will be heard before the U.S. Supreme Court in the fall.
The Larsens’ lawsuit, however, has been temporarily sidelined. In this week’s ruling, Tunheim stated the couple’s artistic desires are not protected.
“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,” Tunheim wrote in the ruling. “As conduct carried out through language, this act is not protected by the First Amendment.”