For-Profit Wedding Chapel Sues After Idaho Legalizes Same-Sex Marriage

Donald and Evelyn Knapp, owners of the Hitching Post Chapel CREDIT: ALLIANCE DEFENDING FREEDOM
Donald and Evelyn Knapp, owners of the Hitching Post Chapel CREDIT: ALLIANCE DEFENDING FREEDOM

Back in May, when a federal judge first overturned Idaho’s ban on same-sex marriage, the Hitching Post Chapel in Coeur d’Alene expressed concern about the possibility of having to marry same-sex couples. The wedding chapel located just across the street from the Kootenai County Courthouse recognized that it would be subject to the city’s nondiscrimination ordinance, which requires that public accommodations (like businesses) offer service equally regardless of sexual orientation. Now that marriage equality is the law in Idaho, the Hitching Post owners Donald and Evelyn Knapp have filed a federal lawsuit for the right to discriminate.

At the time, Coeur d’Alene City Attorney Warren Wilson explained, “If you turn away a gay couple, refuse to provide services for them, then in theory you violated our code and you’re looking at a potential misdemeanor citation.” Wilson clarified that religious entities are exempt under the city ordinance, but apparently told Mr. Knapp at the time that the Hitching Post was not exempt because it is a business, not a religious corporation like a church. As same-sex couples began marrying last week, the Hitching Post did apparently turn away a same-sex couple.

Though they have not yet been found in violation of the ordinance, the Knapps have filed a complaint and motion for a temporary restraining order against the policy. They are represented by the anti-LGBT Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) and allege that they are now under “a constant, coercive, and substantial threat to violate their religious beliefs due to the risk that they will incur the penalties of jail time and criminal fines” for refusing to offer wedding services to same-sex couples.

The complaint suggests that because the city will only prosecute businesses who oppose same-sex marriages, it constitutes “rank viewpoint discrimination.” They seek to have the law declared unconstitutional, at least as applied to them, for violating their rights to freedom of speech, freedom of religion, equal protection under the law, and due process of law. As ordained ministers with the International Church of the Foursquare Gospel, they worry that they risk discipline from the Church if they perform a wedding not sanctioned by their beliefs. The Knapps also ask for “nominal and compensatory damages” for the violation of their constitutional rights and for lost income.


Indeed, the Hitching Post is a for-profit business, but with help from ADF, the Knapps have been gearing up for this challenge for some time by redefining their business in more religious terms. In fact, Hitching Post completely reincorporated with an entirely new business certificate just last month, which was authorized by Michael S. Oswald, an ADF attorney. Along with the new business was a new Operating Agreement, dated October 6, 2014, which enshrines all of the religious values offered in the complaint as part of the business. They similarly added a new Employee Policy and Customer Agreement stipulating that the Hitching Post will only perform unions “between one biological male and one biological female.”

Jeremy Hooper notes that back in May when it was first in the news, the Hitching Post Chapel’s website said that the Knapps offered a “traditional or civil ceremony” for weddings and that they also would “perform wedding ceremonies of other faiths.” Though the website still said as much as recently as October 9, 2014, the old language has been scrubbed and the Hitching Post now only offers “a traditional Christian wedding ceremony.”

As for different-sex couples of other faiths, the new Employee Policy vaguely explains that “Hitching Post owners and employees will perform ceremonies for those of different faiths and religious beliefs (so long as those marriage ceremonies are consistent with the beliefs set forth herein) because marriage is a common grace and creational gift bestowed by God upon all humans for the benefit of human society.” This seems to suggest that it would not be a violation of their religious beliefs to perform non-Christian marriages so long as they don’t perform same-sex marriages — even Christian ones.

The city’s ordinance does provide an exemption for “religious corporations,” but the Hitching Post is not run by a church. ADF’s complaint does not claim that it is such a corporation, but argues that because the exemption is “broad” and exists for churches and church-run corporations, “the City has no legitimate basis for refusing to extend a religious exemption to the Knapps who are Christian ministers engaged in a religious function.” Nevertheless, the Knapps are still running a for-profit business that is providing a service (weddings) to one group of people and not to others that discriminates on the basis of sexual orientation in conflict with the ordinance. Conservatives are already conflating the two in this case to suggest that LGBT rights are forcing ministers to compromise their beliefs.

The Knapps’ case is ADF’s second volley in the “religious freedom” vs. LGBT equality fight in as many weeks. The suit filed by the Houston, Texas pastors challenging subpoenas about their role in the petition effort to overturn a nondiscrimination ordinance there is also an ADF case. Given the numerous cases of bakers, florists, and photographers refusing services for same-sex couples’ weddings that have already been playing out and the new surge of legal marriage equality across the country, more of these conflicts are likely to arise. Several of Las Vegas’ elope emporiums, including The Elvis Wedding Chapel, are also refusing to marry same-sex couples.