Sept. 5, 2019
National media gave scant attention to an important court decision on August 23. The ruling in Telescope Media Group v. Lucero, by a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 8th Circuit, was another landmark in the ongoing debate about whether governments can force small businesses in the wedding industry to participate in same-sex weddings, over the conscientious objection of their owners.
Last year, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of Jack Phillips of Masterpiece Cakeshop, a baker who had declined to create a custom wedding cake for a same-sex couple. However, the court ruled that Phillips had been a victim of specific anti-religious discrimination by the Colorado tribunal that sought to punish him, so they did not definitively address the fundamental free speech concerns that his attorneys had raised.
Telescope Media Group (TMG) is a business founded by Carl and Angel Larsen, videographers who wished to create a business that would make wedding videos, and in the process promote natural marriages between one man and one woman. They sued Minnesota public officials to prevent them from using the Minnesota Human Rights Act to force the couple to make videos of same-sex weddings as well.
In a 2-1 decision, the 8th Circuit panel ruled in the Larsens’ favor, saying that “the First Amendment allows the Larsens to choose when to speak and what to say.” Perhaps that’s why it was largely ignored by the national media.
The breakdown of the vote also shows how important judicial appointments are. The opinion was written by David Stras, a 45-year-old Trump appointee, on the bench since January 2018. He was formerly on the Minnesota Supreme Court (having been appointed by former Republican Governor Tim Pawlenty). The other judge in the majority was 67-year-old Bobby Shepherd, appointed by George W. Bush and on the bench since 2006. Meanwhile, there was a dissent by Judge Jane L. Kelly, a 54-year-old Obama appointee who has been on the bench since 2013.
This was on appeal of the District Court’s decision to deny a preliminary injunction, so it is not a final decision on the merits. However, it is an encouraging decision in that it is based squarely on the free speech claims (or in this case, the right to be free from government-compelled speech) made by the plaintiffs. The court also accepted a “hybrid rights” claim incorporating the free exercise of religion.
Since precedent has established that videos represent a form of speech, whether the principles articulated would apply with equal force to bakers or florists may still have to be argued in other cases. However, the fact that this case was decided (at least for now) on free speech grounds, rather than the anti-religious discrimination grounds used in Masterpiece, makes it a stronger precedent for those concerned about protecting free speech and religious liberty.