A tale of two cases of religious freedom
October 3, 2019
In 2014, Elaine and Jonathan found themselves at a dead end. Having journeyed through the legal system, the United States Supreme Court declined to hear their court case.
Elaine and her husband, Jonathan, owned a small business, Elane Photography. In 2006, Elaine was asked by Vanessa Willock to photograph a “commitment ceremony” between her and her same-sex partner. Elaine politely declined. As a faithful Christian, Elaine believed in marriage as a lifelong institution between one man and one woman, and was unwilling to use her artistic talents to express a message inconsistent with this belief.
Willock filed a complaint with the New Mexico Human Rights Commission. The Commission ruled against Elaine. They determined she violated the state’s anti-discrimination law and ordered her to pay Willock’s attorney fees.
Elaine appealed her case all the way to the state’s Supreme Court. She claimed the New Mexico law violated her First Amendment free speech rights. The law amounted to government compelled speech by requiring her to create artistic content affirming a view about marriage with which she disagreed. The New Mexico Supreme Court rejected Elaine’s contention that her artistic work was speech and ruled she was subject to the anti-discrimination law without exception.
In a concurring opinion, one justice wrote that Elaine and Jonathan “now are compelled by law to compromise the very religious beliefs that inspire their lives,” and that this “is the price of citizenship” when one enters the “multicultural, pluralistic” marketplace.
Though that ruling was the end of the road for Elaine and Jonathan in New Mexico, it’s far from the end elsewhere.
Enter stage right, Carl and Angel Larsen, owners of Telescope Media Group.
As videographers, Carl and Angel are creative professionals. According to their website, Telescope Media Group “exists to glorify God through top-quality media production.” Carl has shared in a video at ADFmedia.org that he “feels most alive” when creating content conveying the stories of life that tap into the deeper dimensions of the human heart.
The Larsens willingly work with all people, regardless of religion, sexual orientation, race, or any other number of classifications. They are also committed to using their talents to communicate a message that glorifies God. This means the Larsens decline any work, from anyone, that compromises their beliefs, including anything that would “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.”
To expand their impact, the Larsens planned to enter the marriage video industry. They hoped to produce content promoting the traditional Christian view of marriage, not for mere economic gain but to impact “a broader audience” and “affect the cultural narrative regarding marriage.”
However, the Larsens were faced with a Minnesota state anti-discrimination law prohibiting businesses from discriminating against any person based on their sexual orientation, a violation of which could result in substantial civil and criminal fines, including possible jail time.
The Larsens filed a court action to determine whether this law violated the First Amendment’s Free Speech Clause, among other constitutional rights.
After an initial unfavorable ruling, the case was appealed to a three-judge panel of the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals, a regional federal court which sits directly below the United States Supreme Court for the region encompassing Arkansas, Iowa, Minnesota, Missouri, North Dakota, South Dakota and Nebraska.
In a monumental opinion issued a few weeks ago, Judge David Stras ruled favorably for the Larsens. He recognized that the Larsens’ custom films constituted speech and were subject to the strongest protections under the First Amendment’s Free Speech Clause. He determined the State of Minnesota failed to satisfy the rigorous requirements of the First Amendment and unconstitutionally infringed on the Larsens’ free speech rights. For those in the 8th Circuit territory, this case means the Larsens – and other creative professionals – are free to use their artistic talents without the government compelling them to express a message contrary to their beliefs.
As the cultural battle on issues of marriage and human sexuality continues, these cases will not be the last word and the issues presented will soon find their way to the Supreme Court. The question remains: Will folks like Elaine, Jonathan, Carl and Angel be free to pursue God’s plans for them as creative professionals in the marketplace, or will they be forced to pay the “price of citizenship” and check their faith at the door of their small business?
Tom Venzor is executive director of the Nebraska Catholic Conference, with headquarters in Lincoln. Contact him at email@example.com.