Lawyers for a pair of Coeur d’Alene ministers think they have a strong case for establishing a religious exemption enabling businesses to refuse to take part in same-sex wedding ceremonies – one of the goals of opponents of the recent Supreme Court decision striking down gay marriage bans as unconstitutional.
Alliance Defending Freedom, a conservative Christian nonprofit organization, is pushing ahead with a lawsuit on behalf of the owners of the for-profit Hitching Post wedding chapel challenging a city ordinance that prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation.
“We’ve got to know the full bounds of the protections that are going to be afforded religious individuals and religious businesses now that same-sex marriage is legal,” said J. Matthew Sharp, an attorney with the organization. “So this is an important test case to really see, are ministers and the businesses they operate going to be protected going forward?”
The city of Coeur d’Alene is pushing back, arguing before a federal judge Monday that the suit should be tossed out because the plaintiffs, Donald and Evelyn Knapp and their business, cannot claim the city law has caused them injury. The city has not enforced penalties against the Knapps, and the city has stated they are exempt from the law because of their religious affiliation.
“The Hitching Post and the plaintiffs have alleged, pled and established that they are a religious corporation and their practice is based upon religion, religious ceremonies,” Boise attorney Kirtlan Naylor, who is defending the city, told U.S. Magistrate Judge Ronald E. Bush.
The Knapps counter that the city had told them in May and June of 2014 that the ordinance, adopted a year earlier, would apply to their business if same-sex marriage became legal in Idaho. And when a federal appellate court struck down Idaho’s ban on gay marriage last October, the couple briefly shut the doors to their business, saying they feared they would be forced to preside over same-sex weddings or face fines and jail time for refusing to do so.
Evelyn Knapp went as far as to pack her husband’s bags for jail, while Donald Knapp suffered “severe stress and anxiety on account of his fear of being arrested and prosecuted by the city,” according to a court brief from their attorneys.
They reopened Oct. 16, and a day later they received – and declined – a request to perform a wedding ceremony for a same-sex couple. They filed their lawsuit the same day.
On Oct. 23, the Coeur d’Alene Police Department received a verbal complaint that the Knapps had refused to perform a same-sex wedding. City Attorney Mike Gridley said that because the Hitching Post was exempt from the ordinance, he told the police there was no violation of the ordinance.
Naylor took aim at the Knapps’ decision to close their doors, arguing it was speculative of the risk of prosecution and cast doubt on their standing to sue. “This was simply a voluntary act creating an economic loss for litigation purposes,” he said in court Monday.
The plaintiffs argue that the city sent mixed signals – even after they sued – on whether the ordinance applies to their business.
City Attorney Mike Gridley sent two letters to Alliance Defending Freedom shortly after the suit was filed. In the first, he said if the Knapps are operating a not-for-profit religious corporation, they would be exempt from the ordinance, but that they likely would be in violation of the law if they provide services for profit and discriminate based on sexual orientation. Three days later Gridley sent a “clarification” saying upon further review of the ordinance, the Hitching Post would not be subject to prosecution after all.
“The harm that the city has caused does not simply go away because it has flip-flopped as a litigation tactic,” the Knapps’ attorneys wrote in asking the court to deny the city’s motion to dismiss the case.
In response, the city said it was not fully aware of how the Knapps were operating the nondenominational wedding chapel across the street from the Kootenai County Courthouse. The couple purchased the business in 1989 and operated as an S-Corporation until Sept. 12, 2014, when the Knapps formed a new business entity, Hitching Post Weddings LLC. Around the same time, they created a new operating agreement stating the Hitching Post is a religious corporation owned by ordained Christian ministers.
“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 stated.
The Knapps took preemptive action to ensure they would not have to perform same-sex marriages in case those marriages became legal in Idaho, Naylor argued.
Sharp said the Knapps simply were “memorializing what had always been the case. They’ve always operated this business according to their religious beliefs.”
He also told the judge the Alliance Defending Freedom has tried for months to get the city to define a religious corporation in the ordinance, but the city has refused to offer such language.
“The problem with this ordinance is no one knows what it means,” Sharp said. “The Knapps have no way of knowing what put them in the base position of being a religious corporation or what will take them out. And that applies not only to the Knapps but any other business subject to this.”
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