Idaho ministers ordered to perform gay weddings
Under a city ordinance, pastors who operate a wedding chapel business can't refuse to perform same-sex marriages
Two ordained Foursquare Church ministers in Idaho face jail time and thousands of dollars in fines for refusing to perform homosexual marriages that are now legal in their state. The ministers—a husband and wife—are suing the city of Coeur d’Alene, whose nondiscrimination ordinance forbids their fee-based wedding venue from refusing to serve gay couples.
Since 1989, Donald and Lynn Knapp have owned Hitching Post Weddings, operated out of a building just across the street from the local county clerk’s office. The Knapps are ordained ministers in the International Church of the Foursquare Gospel, a Pentecostal denomination, and perform about 1,400 weddings a year at the Hitching Post. The company says it “specializes in small, short, intimate, and private weddings for couples who desire a traditional Christian wedding ceremony.”
It charges between $80 and $102 to conduct wedding ceremonies for couples ready to tie the knot. Many couples head to the Hitching Post right after getting their marriage licenses at the clerk’s office.
As Christians, the Knapps have committed to marrying only heterosexual couples at their business. They have refused requests to perform same-sex marriages at least 15 times since 1989. But under a nondiscrimination ordinance Coeur d’Alene passed in 2013, the Knapps could be found in violation of the law if they continue refusing to perform weddings because of a couple’s “sexual orientation.” The Knapps’ attorneys say the ordinance applies to the Hitching Post because it is a for-profit establishment that charges for its marriage services.
The penalty for violating the ordinance is up to 180 days in jail and up to $1,000 in fines. The penalty accrues every day the violation continues: If the Knapps continue declining to perform same-sex weddings for 30 days, they could face up to 14 years in jail and a $30,000 fine.
The Knapps haven’t faced penalties under the ordinance before now because same-sex marriage was not recognized in Idaho until May, when a federal court overturned the state’s voter-approved constitutional amendment defining marriage as between a man and a woman. After a federal appeals court upheld the ruling and the U.S. Supreme Court refused to review gay marriage cases earlier this month, Idaho officials began issuing same-sex marriage licenses on Wednesday.
Two days later, on Oct. 17, the Knapps declined another same-sex marriage request, placing them in apparent violation of the city ordinance. Alliance Defending Freedom filed a lawsuit against the city on behalf of the Knapps the same day.
“The Knapps are in a constant state of fear that they may have to go to jail, pay substantial fines, or both, resulting in them losing the business that God has called them to operate and which they have faithfully operated for 25 years,” the lawsuit claims. “The Knapps also cannot effectively plan their business because of this imminent threat.”
The lawsuit says the Knapps have a written “Operating Agreement” pledging to run their business according to the dictates of their Christian faith. “The purpose of the Hitching Post is to help people create, celebrate, and build lifetime, monogamous, one-man-one-woman marriages as defined by the Holy Bible,” the agreement states, in part. It notes the owners reserve the right to refuse services that violate their religious beliefs. Wedding customers are even required to sign a statement agreeing to abide by Hitching Post policy.
The Knapps’ faith is evident both inside their wedding venue, where they display the Ten Commandments and Bible verses about love from 1 Corinthians 13, and on their website, where they recommend marriage books by popular Christian authors such as James Dobson, Gary Chapman, and Timothy Keller. They also give away CDs to customers featuring Bible-based messages on marriage recorded by a Foursquare pastor. In a Hitching Post wedding video online, Donald Knapp ends the ceremony with prayer.
If the Knapps performed a same-sex marriage, as Foursquare ministers they could face church discipline and the revoking of their credentials, since Foursquare affirms marriage as between a man and woman.
“The city somehow expects ordained pastors to flip a switch and turn off all faithfulness to their God and their vows,” ADF lawyer Jonathan Scruggs said in a statement. “The U.S. Constitution as well as federal and state law clearly stand against that.” ADF claims the city ordinance violates the Knapps' free speech and religious rights under the U.S. Constitution and violates Idaho law protecting the exercise of religion.
The office of Coeur d’Alene City Attorney Michael Gridley did not immediately return a request for comment.
The Hitching Post’s website indicates it first opened in 1919. Justices of the peace once performed marriage ceremonies there. Donald Knapp, who served as pastor of a Coeur d’Alene church in the 1970s, began performing marriages at the Hitching Post on a part-time basis in 1987. He and his wife bought the business in 1989.
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