UPDATE, September 21, 3:24 p.m.: A federal judge Wednesday dismissed Telescope Media Group’s lawsuit. The Minneapolis Star Tribune reports that the “St. Cloud couple will not be able to refuse wedding videography services for same-sex couples.”
The Alliance for Defending Freedom (ADF), a group of conservative attorneys, has made yet another attempt to block LGBTQ people from fully participating in society—this time, by claiming Minnesota’s Human Rights Act could be used to unfairly target businesses who might hypothetically want to deny services to same-sex couples on religious grounds.
ADF—which was instrumental in litigating the Burwell v. Hobby Lobby case and suing the state of Illinois on behalf of fake pregnancy clinics—has used this anti-LGBTQ strategy before. A few years ago, ADF lost a case in New Mexico where it represented a photography business that was sued when it refused to work with a same-sex couple. New Mexico’s Supreme Court ruled that a nonreligious commercial business could not refuse service to a same-sex couple because New Mexico’s Human Rights Act prohibits treating couples differently based on the genders involved. They also ruled that there was no First Amendment exception for creative professionals like photographers.
ADF wasn’t content to lose this battle and move on, so it has now filed what is essentially the same lawsuit in Minnesota federal district court.
Much like New Mexico, Minnesota has a human rights law that prohibits discrimination against same-sex couples. Minnesota’s guidance on the law states “a business that provides wedding services such as cake decorating, wedding planning or catering services may not deny services to a same-sex couple based on their sexual orientation.”
ADF’s client is Telescope Media Group, a film production company that doesn’t want to film same-sex weddings because doing so violates its Christian beliefs. No one has asked it to film any same-sex weddings yet, but it has filed a pre-enforcement challenge anyway. The challenge alleges it needs the court to rule on this matter, because otherwise the Minnesota Department of Human Rights might file a complaint against it when it does refuse to provide services to a same-sex couple.
Telescope is right to fear it might face a complaint. In 2014, the Minnesota Department of Human Rights filed a complaint against a wedding venue that refused to rent to a same-sex couple. The department settled the case, requiring the venue to pay the costs of the wedding, apologize to the couple, and comply with the Human Rights Act in the future.
In the current lawsuit, the ADF complaint paints Telescope as a religious entity that just happens to be a film production company, saying the owners, Carl and Angel Larsen, are “Christians who believe that God has called them to use their talents and their company to create media productions that honor God” and that they are “deeply concerned that American culture is increasingly turning away from the historic, biblically-orthodox definition of marriage as a lifelong union of one man and one woman, and that more and more people are accepting the view that same-sex marriage is equivalent to one-man, one-woman marriage.” There’s a dramatic video accompanying the complaint that explains how important it is to the Larsens that their business “magnify God” and saying they provide informal pre-marital counseling. At the same time, however, the Larsens say they want to participate in events like wedding expos, where they meet with hundreds of people and try to sell their videography services to all couples that attend.
The problem with ADF’s stance is that it tries to create a type of corporation that does not, and cannot, exist: one that wants to only serve people with whom it agrees. Businesses in Minnesota, as elsewhere, are free to refuse service to anyone, but the refusal can’t be based on any of the protected classes under Minnesota’s human rights law. In other words, a business can refuse to admit someone because they are inebriated, or because they proved difficult to work with previously, or because they came into the restaurant too close to closing time, but they can’t be turned away because they are in a same-sex couple or a member of any other group outlined in the human rights law.
Corporations that want to participate in secular society and literally reap profits from doing so aren’t religious entities, no matter how much ADF would like them to be. If people like the Larsens want to work only with other individuals that share their religious beliefs, they can be employed directly by a religious institution and provide services only for co-religionists. Minnesota’s law already exempts those institutions from providing services to same-sex couples if that violates their religious beliefs. If they want to be a for-profit corporation in Minnesota, they must serve everyone.
The broader implications of this lawsuit shows how problematic Telescope’s stance is. If a business can skirt the protections of Minnesota’s Human Rights Law as it applies to same-sex couples, why couldn’t other businesses assert that their sincerely held beliefs prevent them from serving people of color, or disabled people, Muslims, or individuals who receive public assistance—all of whom are also explicitly protected by Minnesota’s Human Rights Act?
In an era where President-elect Trump has given the implicit green light to widespread discrimination, state human rights laws must stand as a bulwark against these kinds of attacks. Here’s hoping that the federal district court in Minnesota agrees.