An elderly couple running a wedding chapel in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho have been threatened by city officials with huge fines and even jail time for refusing to perform same-sex ceremonies. Donald and Evelyn Knapp, ordained Christian ministers in their sixties, have operated the Hitching Post Wedding Chapel since 1989 and officiate religious weddings which typically include direct references to God and Scripture as well as invocations of God’s blessings on the union. The Knapps respectfully declined to perform a same-sex ceremony last week, but the City of Coeur d’Alene recently warned the couple that doing so violated the city’s non-discrimination ordinance; the couple could face 180 days in jail and $1,000 in fines for each day they refuse.
Attorneys with Alliance Defending Freedom have filed a federal lawsuit and a motion for a temporary restraining order in hopes of preventing city officials from forcing the issue. ADF senior legal counsel Jeremy Tedesco said in a statement that “the city cannot erase fundamental freedoms and replace them with government coercion and intolerance.”
“The government should not force ordained ministers to act contrary to their faith under threat of jail time and criminal fines,” said Tedesco. “Many have denied that pastors would ever be forced to perform ceremonies that are completely at odds with their faith, but that’s what is happening here—and it’s happened this quickly. The city is on seriously flawed legal ground, and our lawsuit intends to ensure that this couple’s freedom to adhere to their own faith as pastors is protected just as the First Amendment intended.”
“The city somehow expects ordained pastors to flip a switch and turn off all faithfulness to their God and their vows,” explained ADF legal counsel Jonathan Scruggs. “The U.S. Constitution as well as federal and state law clearly stand against that. The city cannot mandate across-the-board conformity to its interpretation of a city ordinance in utter disregard for the guaranteed freedoms Americans treasure in our society.”
In a commentary on this situation published in The Washington Post, UCLA School of Law professor Eugene Volokh remarked that he couldn’t see a “compelling government interest” in barring sexual orientation discrimination in the performance of wedding ceremonies in private chapels. He suggested that requiring the Knapps to violate their beliefs or close their business represented a “substantial burden on their religious practice.”
“If I had asked a rabbi [to officiate my wedding], and he told me that he didn’t want to preside over a wedding between my wife (who isn’t ethnically Jewish) and me, I can’t see how that sort of ethnic discrimination would create a harm that justifies trumping the rabbi’s religious freedom rights and free speech rights,” explained Volokh. “Perhaps some might feel offended by such a statement of religious rejection, but I don’t think there can be a compelling government interest in shielding people from such rejections when it comes to the performance of ceremonies.”