The offices of the Coeur d’Alene mayor and Idaho governor were deluged with emails and phone calls protesting the city’s anti-discrimination ordinance Tuesday in an escalating clash over religious freedom and same-sex marriage.
A fundamentalist Christian organization in Mississippi took up the cause of the Hitching Post, a Coeur d’Alene wedding business whose owners say they will not perform same-sex weddings.
“Once again, homosexual bullies have targeted Christian-owned businesses in their attempt to silence all opposition to their sinful lifestyle,” the American Family Association in Tupelo, Mississippi, said in an “action alert” on its website. The group went on to state that the city “is threatening two ordained Christian ministers with arrest if they refuse to perform wedding ceremonies for same-sex couples.”
The Hitching Post, which performs secular as well as religious ceremonies, filed a federal lawsuit against the city Friday arguing that the city’s anti-discrimination ordinance would force it to perform same-sex weddings over the religious objections of owners Donald and Evelyn Knapp. Same-sex marriage became legal in Idaho last week.
City attorneys said they have not threatened to arrest the Knapps and have not received a complaint that the business is in violation of the ordinance. They also said the Hitching Post could be exempt from the city law, just as all churches are.
“They may well be exempt,” said Warren Wilson, an attorney with the city. “Our ordinance essentially says we’re going to interpret this ordinance consistent with First Amendment law.”
Still, religious groups like the AFA are pouncing on the city. Mayor Steve Widmyer said his office received thousands of identical emails and many phone calls Tuesday urging him to do all he can to rescind the ordinance, which the City Council updated last year to include discrimination based on sexual orientation. Similarly, Gov. Butch Otter’s office said it had received more than 5,000 emails and 300 phone calls Tuesday.
The Alliance Defending Freedom in Lawrenceville, Georgia, filed the suit on behalf of the Knapps. Attempts to seek comment from the alliance about the AFA’s involvement in the issue were unsuccessful Tuesday.
“The city has said explicitly, repeatedly and publicly that it would prosecute a for-profit business. That’s what the Hitching Post is, and it has never claimed to be anything other than that,” said the group’s senior legal counsel, Jeremy Tedesco. “While the Knapps do operate a ministry, they charge a fee for the ceremonies in order to be able to make a modest living.”
When the city first talked with the Knapps about the ordinance and their business earlier this year, the city informed them they may have to comply with the ordinance based on how they operated. In a follow-up letter to the business, city attorney Mike Gridley said if the Hitching Post provides services primarily or substantially for profit and discriminates in providing those services based on sexual orientation, it likely would be in violation of the ordinance.
Earlier this month the Knapps filed an LLC operating agreement with the state indicating the religious purpose of their business, located across the street from the Kootenai County Courthouse. And that status is what the city would evaluate if someone complained of discrimination there.
“I think you can still be a religious corporation exempt from our ordinance and be a for-profit business,” Wilson said Tuesday. “That’s sort of what we’ve been trying to wrap our head around.”
Tedesco said the city has had months to figure out if its ordinance applies to a for-profit business such as the Hitching Post.
“The city’s disingenuous waffling is indefensible,” he said.
The Southern Poverty Law Center has labeled the American Family Association a hate group in part for its stands against homosexuality. In 2009 the AFA hired Bryan Fischer, the former executive director of the AFA-affiliated Idaho Values Alliance, as its director of issue analysis for government and public policy.
In 2010 Fischer wrote that “homosexuality gave us Adolph (sic) Hitler, and homosexuals in the military gave us the Brown Shirts, the Nazi war machine and six million dead Jews.” He also called for criminalizing gay sex in a February 2010 blog post.
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