BOISE, Idaho — Two Christian ministers in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, could face legal punishment or be forced to sell their nearly 100-year-old wedding chapel for declining to perform same-sex “wedding” ceremonies.
“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,” Jeremy Tedesco, senior legal counsel with the legal group Alliance Defending Freedom, said Oct. 18.
“The government should not force ordained ministers to act contrary to their faith under threat of jail time and criminal fines,” he said. “The city cannot erase these fundamental freedoms and replace them with government coercion and intolerance.”
Tedesco responded to the changing legal climate in Idaho, which is threatening the work of David and Evelyn Knapp, ordained ministers of the International Church of the Foursquare Gospel.
Married for 47 years, the couple has operated the Hitching Post Wedding Chapel since 1989. The 95-year-old chapel sits across the street from the Kootenai County Clerk’s office.
Coeur d’Alene’s city officials have told the Knapps that their refusal to perform a same-sex ceremony at their chapel violates the city’s anti-discrimination policy. For each day they refuse to perform the ceremony, they face up to 180 days in jail and up to $1,000 in fines.
The city’s application of its anti-discrimination ordinance follows a federal court override of Idaho’s constitutional amendment that defined marriage as a union of one man and one woman.
The Alliance Defending Freedom has filed a federal lawsuit on behalf of the Knapps seeking a temporary restraining order against the city law.
“If the Knapps refuse to perform one same-sex ceremony for one week, they risk going to jail for over three years and being fined $7,000,” the lawsuit said. “If the Knapps refuse to perform one same-sex ceremony for 30 days, they risk going to jail for over 14 years and being fined $30,000. If the Knapps refuse to perform one same-sex ceremony for a year, they risk going to jail for 180 years and being fined $365,000.”
Promoting Biblical Marriage
Hitching Post Weddings, the Knapps’ limited liability corporation that operates the chapel, says in its founding statement that the business intends to promote biblical marriage.
The chapel’s religious ceremonies invoke God’s blessing on the newlyweds and cite the Bible in encouraging the couple to have a successful marriage. Couples married at the chapel receive a CD with two sermons about marriage and receive recommendations for many Christian books on marriage. The Knapps charge a small fee for marriages at the chapel.
“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,” Tedesco said.
The lawsuit charges that the city’s application of the law also violates Idaho’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act.
In May, Donald Knapp told the Spokane, Wash., news station KXLY that he “cannot unite people in a way that I believe would conflict with what the Bible teaches.”
“I don’t hate those people. I don’t think anybody should ever be abusive or mistreat them or anything like that, but I cannot in clear conscience unite such a couple,” he said.
The Knapps said in May that if the law forces them to perform the same-sex ceremonies they will look into selling the chapel.
Warren Wilson, an official with the city attorney’s office, in May told the Spokane Spokesman-Review that the Hitching Post would “probably be considered a place of accommodation” that would be subject to the city’s anti-discrimination ordinance.
Jonathan Scruggs, legal counsel with the Alliance Defending Freedom, said 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.”
“The city somehow expects ordained pastors to flip a switch and turn off all faithfulness to their God and their vows,” he said.