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Alliance Alert

Aug 30, 2019

“Significant Win” for Christian Filmmakers

For Carl and Angel Larsen, storytelling is a part of who they are. But more importantly, they seek to live their life according to their faith in Jesus Christ. Together, Carl and Angel combine those two foundational aspects of themselves to tell stories as Telescope Media Group—seeking to magnify God as a telescope magnifies a star.

The Larsens work will work with anyone; they just don’t make films promoting all messages. Instead, the Larsens want to use their God-given talents and the storytelling power of film to promote their religious beliefs about marriage. But according to Minnesota officials, the state’s Human Rights Act mandates that if the Larsens create films celebrating marriage between one man and one woman, they must also create films promoting views about marriage that violate their beliefs, including films promoting same-sex marriages.

That’s what makes last week’s victory at the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 8th Circuit so important. But it’s not just the Larsens who won; it’s every American.

Let’s take a look.

To get an idea of the kind of people the Larsens are, ADF Senior Counsel Jeremy Tedesco explains:

The Larsens live their lives with a faith-inspired commitment to diversity, love of neighbor, and God-honoring storytelling.

The Larsens regularly welcome people into their home and lives who don’t share their culture, ethnicity, or deep religious convictions. They host strangers for coffee, invite people without plans to join them for the holidays, and often fill the open seats at their twelve-foot-long dinner table with people they met just yesterday. The Larsens ask every visitor to sign his name on the bottom of that table so they are never forgotten. It has well over 1,000 names. It’s the centerpiece of their home — a place where everyone is welcome for lively discussion and to experience real hospitality.

Their faith defines their work as well. The Larsens use film to help their clients tell their most important stories. And as Christians, they want every story they tell to magnify God like a telescope, hence the name of their business. They gladly create films for everyone, no matter who they are, what they believe, or where they’re from. But like most other filmmakers, the Larsens cannot create films that express every message.

The Larsens hoped to use their film business to tell stories of weddings that magnify God through the biblical idea of marriage between one man and one woman. They quickly found out, however, that the state of Minnesota could inflict harsh penalties on them if they did.

Carl Larsen writes:

We serve everyone. We just cannot express every message or celebrate every event through our custom films.

To our dismay, several years ago we learned about a Minnesota law — or rather, the unusual application of one — that sought to interfere with our filmmaking choices. According to state officials, this law would force us to create films promoting messages in conflict with our deepest beliefs.

The state’s position put us to a terrible choice. We could bend to the state’s interpretation of the law and compromise our faith; we could follow our faith and risk severe penalties, including fines, damages, or even jail time; or we could ask a court to vindicate our fundamental rights before we entered the wedding film industry.

The Larsens chose to go to court.

In trial court, the Larsens were told that they had no case and that they had to yield their conscience to the Minnesota law. If they made wedding videos that positively portrayed marriage between one man and one woman, according to Minnesota, they also had to do the same for same-sex couples. The Larsens then appealed to the United States Court of Appeals for the 8th Circuit.

Last Friday, the court ruled in a 2-1 decision that Minnesota was violating their First Amendment rights.

Tedesco writes:

Answering whether Minnesota may require the Larsens to produce films “even if the message would conflict with their own beliefs,” the court gave a resounding “no.” It ruled that the Larsens’ films are protected speech and that “the First Amendment allows the Larsens to choose when to speak and what to say.”

No matter what you think about marriage, the government has no business telling people what they must say. This fundamental rule protects everyone. As the Eighth Circuit observed, the same principle that protects the Larsens also ensures that government cannot “demand that an atheist musician perform at an evangelical church service” or “force a Democratic speechwriter to provide the same services to a Republican.”

And, as Carl Larsen says, the big win is not just for them; it’s for everyone.

This mandate would pose a problem for any filmmaker, religious or not. The state shouldn’t be able force you to speak messages that contradict what you believe. For us, this means we can’t create films that depict sexual immorality, support the destruction of unborn children or promote racism. For you, it may mean you won’t promote a conservative political candidate or the National Rifle Association.

We also cannot create films that celebrate any conception of marriage other than a lifelong covenant between one man and one woman, and it’s this stance that set us in the cross hairs of state officials. According to them, if we create films that are consistent with our religious beliefs about marriage, then state law requires that we also create films that promote different conceptions of marriage, including same-sex marriage.

You, like many of our friends, may disagree with our conviction about marriage. But the same principle that protects our filmmaking choices also stops the government from hijacking your speech.

David French of National Review also observes:

If the court did find that nondiscrimination laws can even compel speech, it would invert the constitutional order. It would relegate the First Amendment to second-class status — less potent than a mere state regulation. Indeed, this is the argument that much of the legal Left has been making for years. They view First Amendment–based arguments against public-accommodation laws or other nondiscrimination statutes as a form of special pleading by religious Americans, a request to be exempt from the fair and just rules that govern the rest of us.

But this is exactly backwards. The First Amendment is part of our nation’s governing document, and it recognizes the unalienable rights possessed by all Americans — not just people of faith.  State and local regulators are engaged in special pleading. They’re seeking carve-outs from the supreme law of the land.

Judge Stras understands this reality quite clearly. “Even antidiscrimination laws, as critically important as they are,” he writes “must yield to the Constitution. And as compelling as the interest in preventing discriminatory conduct may be, speech is treated differently under the First Amendment.”

If the government gets to decide what Americans can and cannot say, everyone loses. The ruling from the 8th Circuit is a welcome affirmation of our First Amendment freedoms and the idea that tolerance is a two-way street. As Carl says:

Hours after the court issued its ruling, Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison tweeted, “It’s simple: everyone deserves to and must live with dignity and respect — no exceptions … .” We couldn’t agree more.

  • free speech
  • Telescope Media Group
  • Friday Feature
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