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Opinion >  Column

Shawn Vestal: Truth trampled in Hitching Post stampede

It was always clear that for many, matrimony is a holy sacrament.

Apparently, so is gettin’ hitched.

Coeur d’Alene’s Hitching Post Wedding Chapel – the elopement destination of the Inland Northwest – has sued the city of Coeur d’Alene, arguing that its constitutional rights are being violated by the city’s new anti-discrimination ordinance. The Post doesn’t want to hitch gays and lesbians. Under the city’s ordinance – as well as the recent legalization of gay marriage in Idaho – this means the licensed, for-profit wedding business is in a quandary. It’s the same quandary the owners of Montgomery, Alabama, lunch counters faced in the 1960s.

The Hitching Post story exploded into a culture-wars hissy fit this week, another in a series of wedding industry grievances over gay marriage. The Alliance Defending Freedom is representing the owners, Donald and Evelyn Knapp, and painting the Hitching Post as some kind of ministry.

The ADF put out an “action alert,” and the echo chamber began to echo. “City threatens to arrest ministers,” blared Fox News. A few other sites claimed, falsely, that the ministers had already been arrested. “Criminalizing Innocent Christian Behavior,” cried another headline, and still another opened with a one-word report: “Fascism.” Coeur d’Alene Rep. Steve Vick suggested to World News Daily – home of rabid birtherism – that perhaps the state should stop issuing marriage licenses at all, if it can’t deny them to gay people.

These reports hysterically overshot the truth. City attorneys say they’ve not received any complaints or made any threats of fines or arrests – though the city’s nondiscrimination ordinance does include the possibility of fines and jail times if licensed, for-profit businesses don’t follow the law. City attorneys have also suggested that the Hitching Post might qualify for an exemption, if it comes to that, and the Hitching Post has suggested it may apply to become a nonprofit. You know, like an actual ministry.

The gay marriage debate has always been marked by a tension between the constant insistence that marriage is sacred and the undeniable reality that for many people it is anything but. The Knapps are ordained ministers and doubtlessly hold sincere religious beliefs. But the Hitching Post has seemed to serve mostly that second kind of marriage – the quickie union, the light-hearted ceremony, the time-is-of-the-essence nuptials. It has more in common with a Vegas drive-through chapel than First Pres.

It’s across the street from the courthouse. No appointment necessary, low fees, quick turnaround. It’s where people who are shacked up might go, on a whim, to make things official. It’s where a couple, rushing to beat an immigration deadline, might go to solemnize their residency status. It’s where a bride and groom might wear Hawaiian shirts or Elvis costumes – in 2001, a man arrived for his wedding in full drag, panty hose and all, to the delight and amusement of all.

But here is how ADF describes the place:

“Donald and Evelyn Knapp are ordained Christian ministers who believe biblical marriage is good for society. Not only have they been happily married for 47 years, they have married roughly 35,000 couples and seen countless lives blessed through marriage. As ordained ministers, the Knapps believe God called them to promote the welfare of their community by uniting others in marriage.

“Based on this calling, the Knapps began operating the Hitching Post Wedding Chapel in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho in 1989.

“The Knapps have performed wedding ceremonies in this chapel ever since, eventually forming Hitching Post Weddings, LLC as a ‘religious corporation’ and an ‘extension of their sincerely held religious beliefs’ to ‘help people create, celebrate, and build lifetime, monogamous, one-man-one-woman marriages as defined by the Holy Bible.’ … The Knapps and Hitching Post, LLC cannot, have not, and will not perform ceremonies that violate their religious beliefs, such as a same-sex wedding ceremony.”

The Hitching Post’s religiosity seems to have intensified just lately. An LGBT-rights blogger discovered a discrepancy in the chapel’s website. As late as Oct. 9, the website said “ordained ministers will marry you using a traditional or civil ceremony,” and “We also perform wedding ceremonies of other faiths as well as civil weddings.”

Since the gay-hitching controversy, the website has been revised. Now it says “ordained ministers will marry you using a traditional, religious ceremony,” and “The Hitching Post specializes in small, short, intimate, and private weddings for couples who desire a traditional Christian wedding ceremony.”

In the spirit of finding a solution, the Coeur d’Alene Press solicited advice from a pastor and former attorney, Pastor Chuck Wilkes. He made a succinct suggestion.

“The simple solution for the Hitching Post is to withdraw from operating as an agent of the state and to limit itself to conducting religious weddings only,” he wrote. “Many countries follow this process … churches conduct religious ceremonies, civil authorities conduct legal ceremonies. The Hitching Post could simply conduct a religious ceremony for anyone it chooses (or doesn’t choose) and then refer the bride and groom across the street for a civil ceremony.”

Shawn Vestal can be reached at (509) 459-5431 or shawnv@spokesman.com. Follow him on Twitter at @vestal13.

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