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Ministers sue over same-sex marriage enforcement
Knapps
Evelyn and Donald Knapp, ordained Pentecostal ministers, stand outside the Hitching Post wedding chapel in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho. The couple's attorneys filed suit against the city Friday, asking a federal judge to block city attorneys from requiring them to perform same-sex weddings. - photo by Alliance Defending Freedom

A new debate over same-sex marriage in Idaho may come down to a single point: whether ordained Christian pastors can only be protected when they perform marriage ceremonies in a church.

The action centers on the panhandle community of Coeur d’Alene, where the City Council passed a non-discrimination ordinance in 2013 “aimed at protecting lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people (LGBT) in areas of employment and public accommodations,” the local Coeur d’Alene Press reported.

In the ongoing debate over the legalization of same-sex marriage, advocates for gay marriage have often said churches and clergy would be protected from having to perform ceremonies to which they have religious objections. When the Supreme Court struck down the federal Defense of Marriage Act last year, President Obama declared, “How religious institutions define and consecrate marriage has always been up to those institutions. Nothing about this decision -- which applies only to civil marriages -- changes that.”

But with the Oct. 7 legalization of same-sex marriage in Idaho by the federal 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, the Hitching Post Wedding Chapel found itself in the city attorney’s crosshairs. Donald and Evelyn Knapp, two ordained Pentecostal ministers, have operated the chapel since 1989.

On Friday, two days after county clerks in Idaho began issuing same-sex marriage licenses, the Knapps refused two requests to perform weddings for same-sex couples, according to attorney Jeremy Tedesco of the Alliance Defending Freedom, an Arizona religious liberty law firm.

Anticipating enforcement action by the city, ADF filed a lawsuit in federal court the same day seeking an injunction against Coeur d’Alene, preventing the city from imposing a $1,000 daily fine and prison time of up to 180 days. The fines, the complaint asserts, are cumulative: “If the Knapps decline a same-sex wedding ceremony for just one week, they risk going to jail for over 3 years and being fined $7,000,” the lawsuit stated.

“They are ministers who perform wedding ceremonies,” Tedesco said in a telephone interview. “Every one of their ceremonies are religious in nature. They talk (to couples) about biblical principles that enable a long-lasting marriage. To ask them to perform a same-sex marriage violates their conscience and their ordination vows.”

Earlier this year, deputy city attorney Warren Wilson told area television station KXLY, “If you turn away a gay couple, refuse to provide services for them, then in theory you violated our (non-discrimination) code and you’re looking at a potential misdemeanor citation.”

While the city hasn’t taken action against the Knapps, Tedesco fears same-sex marriage advocates will seek to restrict where and how religious protections can be invoked. “If their position is that ministers can exercise their faith only within the four walls of a church building, then we really see the incredibly narrow and dangerous view of religious freedom that they hold,” he said.

UCLA law professor Eugene Volokh, blogging for The Washington Post, comes down on the side of the Knapps’ claim that applying the nondiscrimination ordinance would be unconstitutional: “Compelling them to speak words in ceremonies that they think are immoral is an unconstitutional speech compulsion.”

Volokh said the move would also violate Idaho’s 14-year-old Free Exercise of Religion Protected statute, which says “government shall not substantially burden a person’s exercise of religion even if the burden results from a rule of general applicability,” such as the local nondiscrimination ordinance.

But Jennifer C. Pizer, a senior counsel with the Lambda Legal Foundation, a gay rights law firm in Los Angeles, told the Deseret News it’s the nature of the Knapps’ business that’s at issue.

“If someone is operating a commercial business, the rules should apply in a fair and equal manner,” Pizer said. “What is the nature of the activity? If it’s a religious sacrament, it’s constitutionally protected. If it’s commercial, the state can regulate it to protect others.”

Because the Knapps were each ordained by the International Church of the Foursquare Gospel, that may create an “interesting” legal issue, Pizer added.

Saying “clergy generally work within a religious setting to provide religious services” is protected, she said. “My knowledge of the past fact, (the Knapps) provided marriage solemnization for people of a broad range of faiths; if that’s true, they’re acting like a public accommodation, and not like a religious denomination.”

The question of whether wedding chapels can be compelled to perform ceremonies may expand beyond Idaho. The Washington Post reported Monday that two different, Elvis-themed wedding chapels in Las Vegas are refusing same-sex marriages.

Email: mkellner@deseretnews.com, Twitter: @Mark_Kellner