“No” may, from the perspective of individual liberty, be the most important word in the English language. Encapsulated in that word is our freedom.
There are some things in our society we cannot say no to. We must pay taxes, or face the consequences. We must obey the laws our political process creates, from traffic regulations to the criminal code. These things, for the most part, are the price of a civilized society. It would be nice if we could all live in our own little spheres, and do whatever we want, but the reality is we must live together.
Our lives, of necessity, intersect one another. At those intersections, we need laws and policy.
Still, to the greatest degree possible, our society should protect our individual right to say “no” to things we don’t want to do.
That’s the issue at the heart of a legal battle between the State of Minnesota and a Christian couple in St. Cloud who own a media production company.
The couple, Carl and Angel Larsen, wanted to expand their business into marriage videos. However, being devout Christians didn’t want to be involved with same-sex ceremonies, but Minnesota’s Department of Human Rights states, “the law does not exempt individuals, businesses, nonprofits, or the secular business activities of religious entities from non-discrimination laws based on religious beliefs regarding same-sex marriage.”
In other words, the Larsens aren’t allowed by Minnesota state law to say no to working at same-sex ceremonies.
In 2016 the Larsens filed suit over the law in 2016, but in 2017 it was dismissed by a U.S. District Court judge.
The Larsens appealed, and late last month the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals reinstated the suit with a 2-1 decision (see below) stating that the videos the Larsens produce are “a medium for the communication of ideas” and that Minnesota’s law “is targeting speech itself.”
The court found a distinction between this sort of law and general prohibitions on discrimination (i.e. putting a “whites only” sign on the front of your business) which, in their opinion, only incidentally impacts speech.
That is a fine distinction, to be sure, and one probably unconvincing to many who see little difference between refusing to serve someone a sandwich because of their skin color and refusing to make a wedding video for a same-sex couple.
Our nation has been struggling with this issue since the civil rights era.
Where does your right to be served by me begin, and my right to say no to serving you end?
It’s an important question, with all sorts of implications.
We require that hospitals treat the sick and injured, regardless of their ability to pay, but we don’t mind grocery stores and restaurants refusing the serve the hungry who can’t pay.
We are fine with public establishments ejecting someone for boorish, obnoxious behavior but most of us aren’t ok with refusing service based on things like skin color or gender or even sexual orientation.
How are we drawing these lines? What consistent principle are we adhering to? How much leeway are we willing to give individuals when it comes to choosing who they will serve with their labor and resources?
I do not agree with the Larsens when it comes to same-sex marriage, but I respect their right to choose the circumstances under which they will work.
The Supreme Court will likely weigh in on this eventually. This sort of case has been litigated before SCOTUS before. In 2018 the court came down on the side of the plaintiff in Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission, a case involving a baker who has the same objections to same-sex marriage the Larsens do, but the opinion didn’t weigh in on the speech issues. The justice found the commission was unfair in applying the law because they demonstrated hostility to the baker’s religious convictions.
The Larsens’ case may well force just that sort of opinion.