Artists and the freedom to create: A look at the Larsen case

October 17, 2018

On October 16, oral arguments were heard in Minnesota for a case centered on creativity and compelled speech. Carl and Angel Larsen are the directors of Telescope Media Group which exists to tell stories that honor God. These filmmakers are also strong proponents of marriage and believe that it is one of the greatest stories to be told. They desire to make films and wedding videos that tell the Christian story of marriage and the way that this is a God-honoring narrative.

In the state of Minnesota, the Larsens could face criminal charges if they declined to create wedding videos that contradict their Christian convictions. Because they wish to both create art in line with their Christian belief that marriage is reserved for one man and one woman, they face fines up to $25,000 and jail time of up to 90 days. In response to this, the Larsens have filed a challenge through Alliance Defending Freedom to have their rights upheld before they begin to create these videos.

Central to this case is the question of whether a government can compel or constrain an artist’s artwork. As Christians, we believe that individuals are created in the image of God. As image-bearers of a creating God (Gen. 1-2), we also imitate God as we use the gift of creativity he has given to us (Ex. 35:35). The drive to create works of art in literature, film, music, and physical medium such as paint or sculpture is connected to our status as beings who bear the image of a creative God.

Christians should recognize the drive to create and also protect that right. The Minnesota Human Rights Act limits the ability of the Larsens to creatively exercise their ability to showcase the glory and grandeur of God in the institution of biblical marriage. The law represents an overreach by the government to compel artists through their artwork to tell a particular narrative. The state has constructed a narrative of what is acceptable and then limited the ability of artists to interact in the public square.

This suit is similar to two other cases which have been brought before the Supreme Court in recent months: Masterpiece Cake Shop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission and State of Washington v. Arlene’s Flowers. In Masterpiece Cake Shop, Jack Phillips argued that he should not be compelled by government authorities to create a wedding cake for a wedding that contradicted his Christian beliefs about marriage. The court upheld that Phillips had been unfairly discriminated against in the previous ruling of the Colorado Civil Rights Commission and appellate courts. Baronelle Stutzman’s case centered on the same issue but with floral arrangements. This case was sent back to the state of Washington Supreme Court to be reconsidered in light of the Jack Phillips ruling.

Central to all three of these cases is the right of the government to compel speech from any individual, but especially artists. The creation of artwork is a specifically personal and intimate act. Every artist brings a portion of themselves to their work. Artists are declaring a message about fundamental truths of reality and creation through their artwork. A wedding video is not just about a couple. It is about the truth and beauty of marriage which is built into the fabric of creation. When artists create, they are doing so with the hope that at the end they may join God in declaring “it was good” (Gen. 1:18). For the state to step into the public square and tell an artist that they cannot tell a particular story because of their religious convictions is an overreach of the state.

The state has no ability to judge between religious convictions. As the 18th century Baptist minister John Leland argued in his sermon, “The Rights of Conscience Inalienable,” it is only when those religious beliefs break forth in actual violence that the government should intervene. Even then, it does not punish the thoughts and motivations; it only punishes the actions and harm.

Carl and Angel Larsen are not looking to actively discriminate or hurt those who believe differently than they do about marriage. They are only seeking to tell the story of God’s design for marriage and fulfill their mission to “magnify Christ like a telescope.” They see their work as filmmakers and artists as part of the ever unfolding story of God’s plan to extoll his glory by making the realities of God and his plan for creation clearer.

As Christians, we should be the most vocal in defending the rights of all peoples to live out their convictions in alignment with their conscience. Carl and Angel Larsen seek to create films. Jack Phillips creates artwork with cakes. Baronelle Stutzman arranges flowers. All of these creative acts are the result of the creative impulse in all image-bearers of God. Christians should consider how this case will indicate the future role that artists may have in the public square. They should be prayerful of the dangers of a government which seeks to overreach and constrain the consciences of artists.

Further, they should be aware that in making this argument they are making it for all peoples. This is not just a Christian case, although the Larsens are bringing the case because of their specifically Christian convictions. It is a case which is applicable to all peoples. No one should be barred from speaking in the public square or operating a business because of a deeply held religious belief. The freedom to speak and produce art is the right of all artists whether Christian, Muslim, Hindu, or non-religious.

We should all be aware of cases such as these because they are indicators of the state of conscience protection in the culture. Christians and non-Christians should all be proponents of the rights of conscience and the right to freely create and express an artistic vision of the good, true, and beautiful.  

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24